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A Circus That’s Really Underground

A curious bi-monthly cabaret in SF where a clown in a bear suit is the most normal sight
By - posted 11/25/2010 No Comment

You could say: San Francisco’s Circus Finelli is so underground it’s in a basement.

But the truth is that the small ensemble of lady clowns that put on a bi-monthly show at Stage Werx offers the same old-world charm of performing arts as any marquee show in town but with less pomp, more attitude, way more fun and at a pretty good price too.

A lady clown in a bear suit playing an accordion?

From the covert Sutter Street entrance you head downstairs into a room of red walls and dark wood and velvet and a first-come, first-serve 60-seat house. Right away, there’s a lady clown in a bear suit, playing accordion, greeting you with squeals. The theme changes every month or so, so you won’t be sure what to expect.

Molly Shannon, a rail-thin dancer and acrobat, walks through the aisles selling canned beer in tiger print leggings, a glittery gold top and a wide smile. A little too wide. She plays a nitwit of sorts, pretty and talented, but unaware she’s being used. As the show begins, ringleader Lady Mayonnaise presents Shannon is a heavy Russian accent, “She’s a good one.” The girl nods eagerly. “She was the cheapest… but she’s the best!”

When you later see her, onstage, twirling and contorting expertly, you can’t help but feel slightly privileged that it was the same girl you bought beer from. And she’s a founding member too. It’s part of the allure of this type of event. Due to the small scale of the operation, the cast members wear many hats, a refreshing thing.

Win a Slap in the Face

There are a ton of characters too. Verka Zaskodna played the sultry Lady Mayonnaise who, in her samba outfit with a fruit bowl headgear, dared audience members to spin the “Wheel of Destiny” in one of the show’s funnier moments. Your chance to win free beer were slim from the get-go: most of the wheel reads “Slap in the Face,” leaving only a small sliver of hope you’ll land on the “Free Beer” wedge.

If the piece leaves you thirsty, there’s an intermission to satisfy. The clown in the bear suit comes out again with her accordion and launches into a rousing, comical chant of “TECATE! TE-CA-TE!” The cans sell for $3 apiece or $5 for two, which is totally reasonable. In any case, proceeds go to the arts.

The show is called Circus Finelli which suggests Italians (the truth: the name of the ensemble is an homage to clown legend Judy Finelli, a teacher at the San Francisco Clown Conservatory the ladies graduated together from in 2005.) The theme at a recent show was decidedly Russian, structured loosely around a 1714 military victory over Swedish fleets. The September shows were restaurant-themed and include a classic French clown routine. So there’s a very deliberate European flair; in fact, co-founder Zaskodna, their main juggler, speaks five languages fluently.

The World’s Only Pop-Up Musical

The hour-long show offers a balanced fare. While the pratfalls and goofs permeate the evening, there’s enough pure circus skill to wow, and some genuinely original material too. Guest stars from SF’s underground cabaret scene The New Eccentrics did a number called “The World’s Only Pop-Up Musical” that was among the most creative storytelling displays in town. It involved an accordion player with a pop-up book that an assistant opened around his face-painted head, providing backdrop to his love story about a puppy and a kitten. It’s the sort of act that requires a little imagination to follow, but it’s rewarding.

It’s still a classic show in many ways. You can expect to see an acrobat, a juggler and a contortionist at every show because those are part of the tradition. Another recent show “Culinary Cabaret” show was directed by New York clown Dominique Jango, a veteran who runs the circus history site Circopedia.org. When you’ve got these kinds of people involved, you know they’re taking it seriously.

“Doing the Circus Finelli Revue is really fun for us because we get to switch around who does what function during the show,” said co-founder Luz Gaxiola, who played a cuddly, mostly silent but mischievous bear during the last run. “For example, I’m not always a bear. Sometimes I’m a German Bitch-boss, or “Bombastica, Queen of South America.”

If you lived in the Dust Bowl, we couldn’t claim this, but in the San Francisco Bay Area, there are expressions of culture and art practically around every corner. You’ve got your choice on what to spend your entertainment or date funds on. There are plenty of good cinemas you could go to (The Clay Theater is threatening to close and could use your bucks) but we’re suggesting you try something a little different. Plus, this is always in 3-D.

Circus Finelli is obviously a labor of love from local ladies with many talents who couple with other talents to bring you classic performers and a dose of the unexpected and costs about as much as a movie ticket.

Like Lady Mayonnaise said, “She’s a good one. She was the cheapest, but she’s the best.”

Circus Finelli is every 2nd and 4th Wednesdays at Stage Werx at 8 pm
Final shows for 2010: Nov. 24, Dec. 8 & 22
$15 general, $10 students and seniors.
Tickets: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/111226,
or call 1-800-838-3006

$7.50 TICKET DEAL: Tix Bay Area is offering $7.50 tickets for the following shows. Click here to purchase discounted tickets for these dates:

  • Wednesday, November 24 @ 8 pm
  • Wednesday, December 8 @ 8 pm
  • Wednesday, December 22 @ 8 pm

Circus Finelli musicians play for FREE at the Noe Valley Farmers’ Market on:

  • Saturday, November 27: 10:00 am to 11:30 am

All Photos by Coline Gaillard

Categories: *Top Pick*, Comedy, San Francisco, Theater & Performance

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