Don’t come ’round Payomet Ranch looking for plot-driven drama. But do come, with or without your child, to enjoy masterful displays of acrobatic skill, a live score inspired by classic Western melodies, and progressive gender politics. In Saddle Up!, the latest offering from the team at Cirque by the Sea, the performers outshine their characters, and at times even knock the mustaches off of them. But that’s fine — it’s a circus.
Gabrielle “Teddy” Ment performs a dazzling range of acrobatic feats on aerial hoop and trapeze bar. She stars as Cheyenne, a young woman who decides to flout the “men only” policy at Payomet Ranch. She exchanges her turquoise dress for an all-black cowboy outfit and assumes the name “Chuck Wagon” in order to fool the manager, Lucky, played by E. Franky Getz, a.k.a. Eleanor Getz, who also wrote and directed the show, and his endearing assistant, Slim Pickins, played by juggler Trevor Pearson.
Together, the trio of ranchers take part in an hour of circus acts fueled by cartoonish masculine posturing, each one trying to outdo the others and cover up any perceived vulnerabilities. For Pearson’s Slim, it’s a fondness for flowers and pink handkerchiefs disallowed by Lucky’s over-the-top machismo. Cheyenne, for her part, tries to hide her true identity with “manly” acts such as bull wrangling and gratuitous bicep flexing. The show is clearly lampooning these expectations of gender performance enforced by Lucky, but I left unsure whether the audience, most of whom were under 10 years old, picked up the nuances.
Indeed, the audience appeared to be more focused on the onstage spectacles than the plot. At one point, during a rope trick in which Lucky stands on Cheyenne’s shoulders while twirling a comically large lasso, Lucky accidentally kicked Cheyenne’s mustache clear off her face. Thankfully, neither the boss nor the audience seemed to notice.
There was no mid-show lull in Saddle Up!, in part due to its sub-60-minute run time. Just to keep the audience honest, though, Ment surprised them by bringing out a full-length whip, snapping it in the air. The crack elicited a shriek from one of the children in the audience who had not been paying attention. Ment then took aim at a full can of seltzer, whipping a gash in the side and drinking from it as bubbles sprayed across the stage.
The show has a lively sense of motion, which is nimbly assisted by jazz pianist Roberto Acosta. It was a pleasure to observe such a talented musician at work, surrounded by instruments, as he kept the tempo in line with the action onstage. Acosta played through the entire show with virtually no pauses, switching between keyboard, synthesizer, kick drum, high-hat cymbal, and even smoke machine. At times, his juggling was even more impressive than that of Pearson.
Saddle Up! succeeds because it offers continuous, one-after-the-other circus acts and never tries to be too much of a play. Pearson’s only line of dialogue — a triumphant “yee haw!” — comes at the end of a remarkable juggling display in which chrome pins serve as kid-friendly replacements for what one would otherwise presume to be revolvers. What seems like seconds later, all three ranchers are back onstage kicking each other’s rear ends in a gag turned acrobatic dance. The entire scene evoked peals of laughter. Ment, Getz, and Pearson work well as a team onstage, although I imagine their ranch would be quite short staffed. Welcome to Cape Cod.
In the minutes before Saddle Up! began, child after child ran onto the stage to inspect the “jail” at Payomet Ranch, and I wondered if the show would be able to hold the attention of its young audience. However, from the first notes of “Home on the Range” until the final applause, all eyes remained fixed on the action. And if that’s not a ringing endorsement for a children’s show, I don’t know what is.
The event: Cirque by the Sea presents Saddle Up!
The time: Through Aug. 26; visit payomet.org for showtimes
The place: Payomet Performing Arts Center, 29 Old Dewline Rd., Truro
The cost: $15 children 12 and under; $25 adults