In the Tree of Smoke at the Great Star Theatre

Leigh Donlan reports from San Francisco’s Chinatown:



Inka Siefker of Circus Automatic in IN THE TREE OF SMOKE (Photo: RJ Muna)


San Francisco would not be the great city that it is without its artists. But like many others, the artists are increasingly being forced out of their hometown by continuously rising rents, evictions, lack of jobs and the intensifying funding drought. So it’s gratifying to see artists using limited resources in imaginative ways, even when there are some execution challenges.

On Thursday night, the circus came to Chinatown’s Great Star Theatre. This glamourous cinematic house, built in the 1920’s, was recently reopened under the direction of Harris Rosenbloom and has maintained its mysterious Mata Hari-like charm, with red velvet curtains and seating and the original painted wooden drops once used by the Chinese operas housed there. Circus Automatic is a troupe of six established San Francisco circus performers including aerialists, contortionists and acrobatic dancers. Their show, In The Tree of Smoke, is a unique presentation, a fragmented and surreal dream: think Blade Runner meets David Lynch.

Dredging Memory opened Act One with Katie Scarlett’s silhouette swaying behind a transparent cityscape. An enormous full moon backdrop illuminated the stage as we listened to an over-amplified electric guitar solo (a John Zorn recording). Scarlett looked like a wild bird with free-flowing arms and stretched torso, trapped and vulnerable in the harsh urban landscape. After her brief dance, she collapses, and the scene changes.

Fleeky Flanco of Circus Automatic in IN THE TREE OF SMOKE (Photo: RJ Muna)

Fleeky Flanco of Circus Automatic in IN THE TREE OF SMOKE (Photo: RJ Muna)


Fleeky Flanco, also the troupe’s producer and artistic director, makes many dreamlike appearances, first taking a romantic waltz with a shopping cart to George Michael’s “Careless Whisper,” and later as a cosmic creature yoked to his spinning orb. Once in a while, he drifts through other scenes as an intersecting reality, dressed in a long pink kimono with a train of purple bubbles trailing behind him. His contortions, funneling his folded body through miniscule barrels, were mind boggling, and his one-handed, full body balances on a pile of precariously stacked bricks were magnificent.

One of the contortionists, the seductive Inka Siefker, launched an arrow from a bow held by her feet while in a hand stand. And there was the lovely Bree Rock, hauntingly beautiful as a lobster with large red pinchers, singing Sunday Morning, a swan song to her father, a convicted bank robber. Micah Walters performed an acrobatic dance, displaying great strength and flexibility, dislocating both shoulder blades to look like wings. Some of the most impressive acts were the aerialists, like Katie Scarlett in Dreams like Blood. The music by the Chromatics was intoxicating, her aerial dancing with blood red satin chords incredibly graceful and smooth at great speeds and heights. Chloe Axelrod performed the stunning aerial ring finale to Nouvelle Vague’s cover of “I Melt With You.” Dressed simply in a white leotard, she looked innocent and ethereal, spinning softly high above the stage, her long brown hair flowing free.

Chloe Axelrod of Circus Automatic in IN THE TREE OF SMOKE (Photo: RJ Muna)

Chloe Axelrod of Circus Automatic in IN THE TREE OF SMOKE (Photo: RJ Muna)


This is a distinctive, alluring show. However, in its current incarnation it is too short; it needs a few more acts. It could also stand some polishing, as it’s still a little rough around the edges. The transitions between sets could be smoothed with a few more tech rehearsals. That said, this is the kind of experimental theatre that promises to become something great. These artists are masters of their crafts, pushing the limits of the human body in artistic ways and creating worlds beyond our imaginations.

In the Tree of Smoke runs through June 28th at the Great Star Theatre in San Francisco’s Chinatown. For more information and tickets, click here. –

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