Molly Shannon and Luz Gaxiola of San Francisco-based Duo Finelli perform Friday and Saturday, Sept. 29-30, as part of the Lunacy Festival. [Photo by Lou Daprile]

New festival showcases the surreal and absurd

"It's tough being a live performer these days," says James Donlon, founder of Flying Actor Studio.

"The experience of live performance is like no other," he says. "The challenge is to change audiences' perceptions and expectations of what entertainment or performance should be. Creative, physical and visual-based theater can really be fun for everyone."

Donlon co-founded Flying Actor Studio in San Francisco before moving to the Rogue Valley to teach theater arts at Southern Oregon University. Now retired, he directs his private conservatory in Ashland, selecting a handful of students to teach disciplines of neoclassic clowning, pantomime and miming.

"In the true sense of the vaudevillians," he says, referring to light, theatrical pieces by comedians, singers, dancers, acrobats and magicians.

Donlon and Lorenzo SantaBarbara of Le Cirque Centre have joined talents to present their Lunacy Festival — a colorful lineup of physical comedy, clowns, mimes, aerial dance and circus arts — at Le Cirque, 280 E. Hersey St., No. 12, Ashland.

Along with Rogue Valley performers and students from Le Cirque, the festival will feature artists from San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland and Seattle. Look for physical comedy by Ashland-based troupe A Muse Zoo and duo Donlon & Ceñal; circus performer Jules McEvoy-Shaefer; Clown of Mexico Ferdusol; and lady vaudevillians Duo Finelli, to name a few. Percussionist Jared Brown, a SOU graduate and former student of Terry Longshore, and cellist Michal Palzewicz will perform eccentric melodies to accompany some of the acts.

"It's physical comedy, soft-shoe, and surreal, absurd events delivered with dark humor or satire," Donlon says. "It's a neoclassic mix of the world-theater traditions of physical expression. Many cultures outside the United States have strong theater movements because, perhaps, their technology for movies and TV is not quite as pervasive. Audiences see live events that are poetic and spark the imagination. 

The festival is divided into programs that will delight kiddies and their parents, general audiences, and late-night cabarets for adults only.

"The cabarets will be a little more risqué, a little more edgy," Donlon says. "There might be some classic burlesque similar to the late-night cabarets of Berlin before World War II."

The festivities open at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 22, with a show for general audiences and a 10 p.m. cabaret performance. Family shows are set for 2 p.m. Saturdays, Sept. 23 and 30. Shows for general audiences continue at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 23, and Friday and Saturday, Sept. 29-30. Cabaret performances also are set for 10 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 23, and Friday and Saturday, Sept. 29-30.

Tickets are $15, $10 for students, and can be purchased at lunacyfest.com. Service fees apply to ticket prices. Each show's lineup is available at the website.

The Lunacy Festival is the first of what Donlon and SantaBarbara hope will be an annual event.

"It's our dream to perform in a festive, colorful big-top in Ashland's Lithia Park," Donlon says. "The idea is typical to that in Europe, where they have canvas tents that seat 150 to 200 people and feature shows devoted to circus arts, variety, cabaret and physical comedy, stuff that was around before the days of television.

"The words clown and mime are misunderstood in the United States. These art forms sprang from the original sources of art in societies, just like dance, music and other rituals that were created around the campfire. Silent films are based on these art forms: gesture and situation, action rather than words, and physical expression.

"I think the old circus shows of the United States are dying," Donlon says. "Cirque du Soleil changed that. There's a new aesthetic that keeps the mystery and magic of highly skilled performers and comedy. Blue Man Group is a good example of physical theater that is mainstream.

"Physical theater doesn't have language barriers. It can be performed anywhere and still communicate. It works through basic human emotion and reaction," he says.

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