“I’m a doctor,” said Dr. Samba, aka Molly Shannon, as she passed out paper napkins for kleenex to a family suffering from little sniffly noses while waiting for Circus Finelli’s Holiday Extravaganza at the Julia Morgan Center on College Avenue. “I have these things under control.”
Then, springing up to the stage, she asks those assembled, “Do you like my outfit?”—a bright, scanty Carneval two-piece with tutu—receiving a big shout from the kids. The samba music starts, Dr. Samba herself, shimmying, introduces the Circus en Espagnol, and a clown trombonist with big glasses and pigtails like antennae (Luz Gaxiola) blats her way onstage, kicking a high-hat cymbal strategically placed.
Another act’s announced, getting a single cheer from the audience—from Verka Zaskodna, who rushes up the aisle and onstage, realizing it’s her act and she’s late. Clad in a bathrobe and slippers, crowned with a bathcap, munching a banana, Verka dryly translates Dr. Samba’s orotund Spanish intros into terse English, as Luz, playing yet another of her many instruments, peels off Dr. Samba’s tutu as she marches past and suddenly we’re at the beginning of Beth Clarke’s slack rope act.
Circus Finelli’s all-female phantasmagoria, presented by the Circus Center in San Francisco, rolls along at this brisk clip (it’s under an hour), droll pauses and counter-beats to mix up the fun. It’s a family show, and perfect for the kids (who were howling with glee), but also an amusing holiday escape during for unaccompanied adults, with matinees (two a day) up through Christmas Eve.
Beth Clarke’s a slack rope walker with style, smiling with confidence, posing with elegant gestures, even hopping backwards or balancing a rolled-up carpet on her raised feet as she stretches back on the rope, to the tune of “My Black Market Baby.”
At the end of her act, Pepito (Z. Smith) makes a clown ballet out of an ungainly pas de deux with stage manager Mike Clifford in getting the rigging down. Luz on harmonium shoots Pepito with her finger, and Verka in her housewife get-up shoves the clown corpse offstage with a pushbroom to the hilarity of the kids present.
There’s a cartoon quality to the sound effects and instruments that texture the string of acts, but it’s all dependent on live timing—nothing like you’d ever see on TV or in the movies. There’s lots of comical juggling and acrobatics, thrown in with the real thing; humor and excitement are inextricable. Pepito plays a roaring lion, bursting out on stage after Dr. Samba asks for a replacement tamer—a boot with a big bone in it and a frayed whip have just been tossed from the wings—ferociously gnawing the boot, swallowing the bone like a sword swallower, and using the whip handle as a mic to do a little leonine rap act, before tearing into the audience to chew on a few little rainboots, feet wriggling in ticklish delight.
But the lion turns out to be a relation to Bert Lahr’s cowardly lion, scared by a dancing cow shuffling onstage to James Brown and twirling hula hoops on her hooves. Later, Lorelei MacDonald, the trapeze artist, will ride on with great eclat astride the same cow, doing her fabulous act aloft to the old Yiddish swing tune, looking in her get-up and big grin for all the world like Ann Miller.
There’s a funny contortionist bit, a bit of audience participation here and there, like Dr. Samba switching to English as she treats patients by misting them, until a disguised clown plant retches her way up from the audience and everything goes awry. There’s some slap-boxing, too, and a great finale with curtain call, Pepito hitting the deck again, and Verka with the pushbroom, following the great Wilson Mizner (of Benicia and the Barbary Coast) and his advice when he managed a theatrical flophouse in Manhattan: “Carry Out Your Own Dead!”
1 and 3 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts, 2640 College Ave. 845-8542.