Theatre Review: “Zirkus Grimm” at Q Artistry

"Zirkus Grimm" Q Artistry

I’ve been thinking about “originality” a lot lately.  Artistic director Ben Asaykwee often describes Q Artistry as a theatre company that is devoted to producing original works.

Ironically, most of the shows they’ve done in Indianapolis so far have been adaptations of other works.  “Cabaret Poe,” for example, was a musical adaptation of the stories of Edgar Allan Poe.  “Bot” was a robot opera based on the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice.  “Perry Haughter” was a musical spoof of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter.  And so on.

Even the first show I saw from Q Artistry, back in 2010, “USO: Songs of War,” was basically a collection of popular songs from World War Two, loosely tied together by a frame story about letter writing between soldiers and the folks back home.

I am not complaining about any of this.  Of the several Q shows I’ve seen so far, every single one has brimmed over with creativity, freshness, wit, skill, talent, and successful collaboration.  Every single one includes in its adaptation some totally new material in the form of music, choreography, dialogue, perspective, and more.  That is definitely a kind of originality.  I mean come on: “The Fowl” was a two-part musical re-enactment of Hitchcock’s film “The Birds” by an all-child cast except for the Ostrich, with the second part told from the point of view of the birds.  If that is not original, I don’t know what is.

Most importantly, all Q shows include a love and a mischievous respect for the previous works.

I mention all this in prelude to talking about the world premiere of Q Artistry’s newest show, “Zirkus Grimm,” as a way of saying yes, there are umpty-billion adaptations of the spoken stories that folklorists Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm collected and wrote down from the everyday people that were telling them (and adapting them!) around their hearth fires in Germany in the late 1700s and early 1800s.  Some adaptations are quite bad, some are ho-hum, and some are informative and/or enjoyable.

I bet none of the others is as all-out intriguing as this one is. 

Here are the main three reasons I love this show and had to see it twice. (I would see it again if I could.)

  1. It actually combines two iconic things – Grimm stories and the circus – seamlessly and gives us a lot to think about.  I love shows that give me a lot to think about.
  2. It is richly layered artistically.  It includes dark-yet-sparkling music, poetry, dancing, storytelling, juggling, flirting and more.  All are performed exquisitely on a very cool set with costumes that tell stories of their own.  All are well blended into a coherent, if almost surreal, whole that addresses all of the senses.
  3. It is richly layered psychologically.  Being in the audience feels like being in a lucid dream.  You observe things like a clown pulling a rope from a guy’s fly and it turning into Rapunzel’s hair but you don’t question it because you know you’re dreaming.

There is a lot to take in.  I’m going to write about my two experiences of the show below as a way of processing them for myself and not worry about spoilers.  If you’re thinking of going (and I always encourage people to experience a show for themselves and form their own opinions), I would make reservations right away, not just because the first five of seven nights sold out but because the Irvington Lodge venue has been transformed into an intimate circus tent with the audience sitting around the edges inside.  The large cast uses every square inch of unoccupied floor space under the black “big top.”  Management will not be able to cram in extra chairs to accommodate crowds.

If you do get in, you’ll literally be rubbing elbows with the circus folk.  They are as thrilling as live wolves.

So leave the little kids at home.  This isn’t a Disney show.


The Setting

We are in the tent of a tattered German circus that has been on the road for a long, long time.  They might even be ghosts except that some of the introductory banter grounds us all in present-day Indianapolis and the Ringmaster is able to switch from speaking German to English.

One of three leaders, the Ringmaster tells us that they used to have animals but… he pauses, shrugs, then says, “…and then we starved some more.”   Meaning: they were forced to eat all but one of the circus animals to survive. More about the one remaining animal in a moment.

Not only is this group of 20+ people living close to the bone, their membership is multi-generational and possibly illegal.  One young girl holds up a sign that says, “This isn’t my real family!” and silently beseeches the audience for help.  We laugh in uncomfortable sympathy.

The Ringmaster does not say, but it quickly becomes obvious, that this German circus and its “attractions” – its stories – are an allegory for everyone’s life.  In fact, it feels as if we – the audience – have been on the road with this circus for a long, long time, too.  We will have to help make the stories come alive through our listening again and again for as long as it takes to get what we need from them.  Not all of the stories make sense yet. Not all of them will by the end of this night, either.  And that’s okay.

In the meantime, although there is hardship and disappointment along the road, there is strength, beauty, humor, companionship, and hope, too.  Sometimes the good things are well hidden.  One of the main ways this group has learned to protect itself is by following the Ringmaster’s instructions to “keep your show face on.”

LtoR: Ben Asaykwee, Thomas Cardwell, Georgeanna Smith
LtoR: Ben Asaykwee, Thomas Cardwell, Georgeanna Smith

I read later in my program that the three leaders in this circus of life are called Cleverness (Thomas Cardwell, aka Konig the Clown), Strength (Georgeanna Smith, aka the Lion Tamer), and Passion (Ben Asaykwee, aka the RingMaster.)  They bicker with each other, crack whips at each other, kiss and stroke each other, and support each other, just like those three attributes do in anyone’s real life.  These three artists, and their three job titles, and their three attributes, serve the organization as well: they spur their tribe to keep going creatively and they are themselves role models for singing, dancing, and storytelling.

It is no accident that they sing a song together about the importance of the number three in these stories.

‘Speaking of the Program Notes

I wish the program had included a list of the titles of the many wonderful – and, yes, original – songs in this show.  Maybe Q Artistry will make a CD for “Zirkus Grimm” the way they did for “Cabaret Poe” and I’ll be able to learn more about the songs that way.  Listening to just the music would be a treat all by itself.  On the first night I was at this show, there were problems with the microphones and I happened to sit right next to the live band, which sounded great but was very loud.  I therefore understood little of the lyrics but I didn’t care because the tunes were enjoyable and there was so much going on visually, too.

The second time I went, I sat farther away from the band and the microphone problems seemed to have been fixed.  I heard, and enjoyed, a lot more of the lyrics. All the way home that night I alternated humming the chorus from the “Save Yourself” song and the “ba-DA-dum-DA-dum-PAH-dum” of the human calliope number.  However, I know that beyond the catchiness there are depths to the music and lyrics that I didn’t fully appreciate even with two experiences of the show.

According to my program, the music for this show is by Ben Asaykwee, with lyrics by “The Brothers Grimm” and Ben Asaykwee.  The book is also by Ben Asaykwee. The whole show is based “on the works of The Grimms’ Fairy Tales.”  The program doesn’t say which translation or edition.

I also wish the program had included a list of the titles of the Grimm stories that are explored in “Zirkus Grimm.”  The show assumes that the audience will be familiar with all of them, but I’d be surprised if everyone is.

I understand that if you put a list of songs and stories in the program, then some audience members will think they are supposed to look at their programs during the show and “follow along,” which is wrong, of course.  If they do that they will annoy other people with their paper rattling and they will miss experiencing the show fully themselves.  This is especially true for a show such as this one, which is not a storytelling olio, with one story following the next in a tidy perforated line, but more of a dazzling, multi-dimensional experience.  The stories in “Zirkus Grimm” are well delineated but they also are well blended, if that makes sense. 

So I think I understand why there isn’t a list of the stories or songs in the paper program. 


It would be a gift to the audience to help them relish the show beyond the immediate experience of it by giving them a little more information – a few more breadcrumbs, if you will – to help them find their way to reading the original stories for themselves.

So maybe a good compromise would be to have a url in the paper program for a page of “Background Notes” on the company’s website.

Jaddy Ciucci, Tightrope Walker
Jaddy Ciucci, Tightrope Walker

Anyway, here are the Grimm stories I remember from “Zirkus Grimm” just on my own, in no particular order:

  • ·         Rapunzel
  • ·         Hansel and Gretel
  • ·         Sleeping Beauty
  • ·         Rumpelstiltskin
  • ·         Little Red Cap (Little Red Riding Hood)
  • ·         The Robber Bridegroom (which was new to me but reminded me a bit of the “Bluebeard” story collected in France by Charles Perrault or the “Mr. Fox” story collected in England by Joseph Jacobs)
  • ·         The Three Little Men in the Forest (which was new to me but reminded me a bit of the “Diamonds and Toads” story collected in France by Charles Perrault)
  • ·         Snow White
  • ·         The Handless Maiden
  • ·         The Magic Fish
  • ·         Cinderella

The Stories

I’m forgetting at least one other but even eleven Grimm stories is a LOT of archetypal material to absorb in one night, especially when some are offered only as fragments, like memories from a previous life, and each is re-interpreted by various performers using various performance art forms, and all are tied together by the three leaders’ sexy patter plus loads of circus references woven in and around and through. The show is tightly paced, but it’s still a lot to take in.

One story in particular, “The Handless Maiden,” got short shrift.  I understand why the playwright wanted to include it – it’s a story that is packed full of meaning – but maybe it should have been left out of the show instead of rushing through a mere recitation of the second half of the story and saying it doesn’t matter.

Because of course the rest of the story does matter.  Speaking as someone who is herself beginning the second half of life, it matters a great deal. 

However, the second time I saw “Zirkus Grimm,” I wondered if the playwright had treated this story like this as a way of adding a layer of irony to the song that goes with the ZG retelling: “God is in the details,” the Ringleader sings. “Pay attention to the details.”  This show as a whole is packed with attention to detail, which is what makes it wonderful but which is what also makes it impossible to fully take in in one sitting. 

Which in turn is what helps make the overall point of the show, which is, at least to me:

These are power stories.  You’re a fool if you think you fully understand any of them just because you’ve already heard them a time or two. 

Understanding these stories, like traveling in the audience with this circus, is a life journey.

The first night I saw “Zirkus Grimm” I was also…well, “dismayed” is too strong a word but…there was no Woodcutter in the ZirkusGrimm version of “Little Red Riding Hood.”

This is the way my thoughts went that night:

Yes, the Wolf must die…and not just because he violated Red’s innocence and killed her Grandmother but also so that young listeners have closure, not nightmares from thinking the Wolf is still out there in the world, waiting to kill us, too.  Not for me the cleaned-up versions where the Wolf “runs away” or whatever…

…So yes, the Wolf must die, and I understood Red’s satisfaction in knifing him herself.  R stands for revenge as well as red, after all…

…But I am uncomfortable with the loss of the Woodcutter in this retelling.  You can argue that no one truly “saves herself” even though those are the lyrics from another song in this show.  Look at how the Old Woman helps the Girl escape in “The Robber Bridegroom,” for example.  You don’t need a lot of friends, but you do need a few.  And Red needs the Woodcutter.  We all do.

Or you can look at it from a Jungian point of view and argue that the strength that helped Red get revenge in the “Zirkus Grimm” retelling was actually her accessing her own inner Woodcutter.

Either way, the Woodcutter isn’t a disposable character.

It’s possible to be too original sometimes when it comes to retelling archetypal tales.

Ryan Powell, Roustabout, and Jaddy Ciucci, Tightrope Walker - aka the Wolf and Red, respectively
Ryan Powell, Roustabout, and Jaddy Ciucci, Tightrope Walker – aka the Wolf and Red, respectively

However, now that I’ve seen and heard the ZG version a second time, I think it was actually a brilliant choice to make Red (also portrayed brilliantly by diamond-voiced Jaddy Ciucci, listed as “Tightrope Walker” in the program) a girl that is street smart but still unwise even after she loses her innocence to the Wolf (given irresistible virility by, I think, Ryan Powell, listed as “Roustabout” in the program.)

“This is for my grandmother!” Red snarls, back-handing the Wolf’s face. “And this is for me” she whispers as she slashes his throat.  It feels triumphant, but is it, when it is accompanied by so much rage and regret?

In the Zirkus Grimm, “Little Red Riding Hood” becomes an intriguing story about goodies and burdens of many kinds.

So now I love the powerful complexity of this particular retelling and am content to let the Woodcutter be on vacation or whatever this time around.

I confess that other “Zirkus Grimm” retellings that veered even further from the standard tales moved me without bugging me. 

There’s a retelling of “Snow White,” for example, that compassionately highlights the Queen’s weariness and remorse, and features an awakening between two princes.  Lion Tamer Georgeanna Smith sets her whip down for a moment in this scene to sensitively portray the exhausted Queen weeping into her giant mirror.  Tommy Lewey portrays “Hans Zimmer,” a member of the circus’ dance troupe, throughout the show, but in this one scene he is Snow White instead, woken with a kiss by Prince Scott Russell (called “Strong Man” in the program.)  After the awakening, Tommy dances and Scott sings, both of them eloquent, so eloquent, in their longing.

Scott Russell (Strong Man) bends to awaken Tommey Lewey (Hans Zimmer) in the ZG version of Snow White
Scott Russell (Strong Man) bends to awaken Tommey Lewey (Hans Zimmer) in the ZG version of Snow White

There’s a retelling of “Cinderella,” for another example, in which the Hero intentionally leaves her shoe at the ball for the Prince to find as a way of organizing her own rescue from an abusive situation.  Wearing stars on her flight suit and an aviator’s goggles on her head, she is also strengthened by the no-nonsense voice of her dead mother telling her “You’re okay, save yourself!” Maria Meschi (“Daredevil” in the program) brought me to tears with her beautiful singing and the deft mix of vulnerability and bravery in her portrayal.

No one actually uses the word “Cinderella” in that story but you recognize it just as you recognize, perhaps subliminally at first and then more overtly with the help of this show, the power in the phrase “Once upon a time,” or the potentially universal applicability in the fact that most fairy tale characters don’t get a name beyond “Miller’s Daughter,” or the peril in ignoring the moral of the story, whatever the moral seems to be to you in this moment.  You don’t need to see Cinderella’s Stepmother actually punch her while her stepsisters hold her down because the actors’ miming, accompanied by the rest of the ensemble’s percussive stamping, evokes it so effectively.

The re-telling of “Hansel and Gretel,” sticks pretty closely to the original in terms of plot, I think, but is given a fresh take in that several cast members form first the house that the children nibble on, and then the cage in which the Witch stows Hansel to fatten him up, and then the giant oven that is the means for Gretel to defeat the Witch.  The people-pieces flow as smoothly as mercury around the tent floor like a living 3-D puzzle that forms and re-forms itself according to what is needed.  Paige Scott is formidable as the Witch (“Frau Jest the Clown” in the program.)  Somehow she portrays comfy, crazy, cruel, and comical all at once.  The four youngest members of the cast take turns portraying the children.  The first night I saw the show, I think Logan Sejas was Hansel and Elsie McNulty was Gretel.  I think the second time I saw the show, Griffin Loner was Hansel and Morgan Roof was Gretel.  I recognized them all from “The Fowl” but have never met any of them in person, so I’m only guessing.  In any case, both pairs do a splendid job.  The youngest actors portray H&G as bleak and adorable.  The next youngest actors portray H&G as bleak and feisty.  On their “off” nights, they wear purple and portray “Little Fleigen Zimmer” children, singing and dodging and dancing among the taller members of the ensemble with as much skill and professionalism as any old-timer.

"You would not BELIEVE the day we've had. First our Stepmother threw us out, then we met this crazy person that wanted to eat us..."
“You would not BELIEVE the day we’ve had. First our Stepmother threw us out, then we met this crazy person that wanted to eat us…”

The Performers

All of the performers play more than one part in the show, or at least serve more than one purpose.  All are excellent.  The friend that went with me my second time said he didn’t care that he hadn’t even heard of some of the stories because the performances were so good.

I’ll just mention a few more of the roles:

Remember the one surviving animal?  Carrie Morgan is “Poodle Lady.” She brings out the cutest live poodle I’ve ever seen (“Adolf the Fluffy,” I think his name is) and together they charm the audience in a hilarious and surprising way, assisted by, I think, BJ Bovin. (“Knife Thrower” in the program.)

Carrie Morgan, Poodle Lady, gives her charge a treat after their trick.
Carrie Morgan, Poodle Lady, gives her charge a treat after their trick.

Later, Carrie Morgan and BJ Bovin are the Miller’s Daughter and the Rich and Creepy Suitor in the “Robber Bridegroom” story.  Carrie makes you totally understand why sometimes a sweet and well-meaning person just doesn’t listen to the little voice inside that says, “Something feels wrong!” Sexy and supposedly suitable BJ and his goofy, gruesome brothers remind you to listen to your own intuition.

The story of “The Magic Fish” is shared in episodes distributed throughout the show and given a clever, vaudevillian vibe by Bill Wilkison as the would-be low-maintenance Fisherman (“Manager” in the program) and Janice Hibbard (“Sharpshooter”) as his rifle-toting, greedy and high-maintenance Wife.  Pat Mullen (“Big Pants the Clown”) gulps hilariously as the title character.

Bill Wilkerson (L - aka "Manager") and Pat Mullen (R - aka "Big Pants the Clown") enact the story of The Magic Fish.
Bill Wilkerson (L – aka “Manager”) and Pat Mullen (R – aka “Big Pants the Clown”) enact the story of The Magic Fish.

Ben Schuetz (“Squeaker the Clown”) provides not only a running gag for the show with his squeeze-bulb horn but also non-verbal food for thought about limits and responsibilities: if your friends and your employer see you as having only one kind of voice, and you understand that that voice is unique and essential to the work, BUT you have outgrown it and want to try expressing yourself another way…what happens then?

The Ringmaster tells us that this circus gave up acrobatics because they were tired of all the broken limbs.  However, the remaining dance troupe keeps grace and light in the dark ZG mix.  In addition to Tommy Lewey and the children that I mentioned earlier, the Zimmers include Ashley Saunders (“Shimmer Zimmer” in the program) and Amelia Smith (“Glimmer Zimmer”).  I think these two play Cinderella’s stepsisters, too, as well as other roles.

I don’t think I’ve ever met Maddie Deeken (“Cat Girl” in the program) or Danielle Carnague (“Showgirl”) or Abigail Wright (“Seamstress”) in person, so I don’t know for sure which of them played the lustful, gold-digger Stepmother in “Hansel and Gretel” or the possibly homicidal wheelchair faker or several other roles.  But as I said before, there is excellence across the board in this show so I hope it’s enough just to mention their names.

The ZirkusGrimm Band includes:

  • ·         Michael Block, piano and conductor
  • ·         Maureen O’Leery, violin
  • ·         Kaitlin O’Leery, cello
  • ·         Tim Barrett, bass
  • ·         Ben Michaels, guitar
  • ·         Michael Totty, drums
RingMaster Ben Asaykwee is also known as "Passion" in the Zirkus Grimm.  In real life, too, he is a lightning rod for creative passion in the Indianapolis area and beyond.
RingMaster Ben Asaykwee is also known as “Passion” in the Zirkus Grimm. In real life, too, he is a lightning rod for creative passion in the Indianapolis area and beyond.

Here are the other credits from my program:

  • ·         Ben Asaykwee – director, producer
  • ·         Will McCarty – producer
  • ·         Carrie Morgan – assistant director
  • ·         Amanda Lane – light technician/stage manager
  • ·         Jordan Lyons – assistant producer, spotlight (GREAT use of spotlights – almost another voice in the cast!), house manager
  • ·         Scott Russell – fight captain
  • ·         Ensemble – choreography

Set construction: Abbie Copeland, Will McCarty, Ben Lamey, Paige Scott, Amanda Lane

Lighting design: Brett Wand, Krista Layfield

Costumes: Rebekah Foster, Kat Robinson, Asha Patel, Amanda Musgrave, Heidi Loner, Maria Meschi, Ben Asaykwee, Kandra Sejas

The Show’s Arc

If I could experience “Zirkus Grimm” a third time, I would like to pay more attention to the overall arc of the show.  I think there is a lot of good, meaty stuff to appreciate there, too, but again, there were so many finer details to take in at first (and no lists of songs or stories in the program!) that I can’t confirm this yet.

For example, I think there is a deliberate progression from what I think of as pure storytelling – “just” one (or three) tellers, some listeners, and some spoken words – to more theatrical storytelling that incorporates more of the whole cast singing, dancing, acting out dialogue, etc. 

Early in the show, the three leaders tandem-tell three stories and sing about the number three.  It’s cleverly done, and delightful, but it’s just the three of them, which means the audience has to/gets to work a bit harder in our listening, which means we are dug in, invested, well-grounded, whatever you want to call it, by the time the more dazzling stuff comes along. Our jaws drop, yes, but we are not passive observers, if that makes sense.

It is also during this most pure and intimate preliminary storytelling that the leaders pull up a member of the audience to be the good girl that shares her small loaf of bread with The Three Little Men.  She gets applauded back to her seat.

A moment later they pull up another member of the audience to be the bad stepsister that refuses to share her huge loaf of bread or help The Three Little Men in any way.  She gets mime-spanked back to her seat. 

The fear/anticipation of possibly being pulled up in front of everyone else sharpens the audience’s focus, too.  It also subliminally sends the message that everyone could be anyone in these stories.  Nobody is always the good girl. Which opens us up to the deeper possibilities in the stories to come.

Aaagh, I ‘m not explaining my thoughts very well.  But anyway, I wish I could see the show a third time or more.

The Train Whistle

A train whistle blows in the soundscape of “Zirkus Grimm.”  (I first heard the word “soundscape” at the Phoenix Theatre but this Q Artistry show definitely has one, too.)

The train whistle makes me think of journeys, of course, and of never staying in one place for too long, and of yearning.  Ah, yearning.

We always wake up, eventually, from a dream and we always, eventually, have to leave the theatre and go back to our everyday lives.  We always have to say goodbye at some point to the circus tellers and let them travel on to their next destination.  When they come back to our town next year – if they do, and if we are still living here – we will all bring a year’s worth of experiences to the mix of stories.  So even if the show is “the same,” we will not be.

I love that this show, even more than most live theatre shows, will be unique – original! – each time and for each person that experiences it.

"Zirkus Grimm" Q Artistry

Box Office

This world premiere run of Q Artistry’s “Zirkus Grimm” runs through Saturday, July 27, 2013.  To buy tickets, please visit their website:

Note: Kandra Roembke Sejas took all of the photos above except for the one of the three leaders (Ben Asaykwee, Thomas Cardwell, and Georgeanna Smith.)  Will McCarty took that one.  I am using these photos on my blog with the permission of Ben Asaykwee. 

©2013 Hope Baugh

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