It's unlikely that animal rights protesters will be picketing the Chicago debut of "Circus 1903 -- The Golden Age of Circus" at the Oriental Theatre. There may be elephants in this international touring show, but they're actually life-size puppets.
"We had to find a way where we could still revive that feeling of having those animals in the show -- the magnificence of having an African elephant onstage," said "Circus 1903" assistant director Kirsty Painter.
"Circus 1903 -- The Golden Age of Circus"Location: Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., Chicago, (800) 775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, March 21-24; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, March 25; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, March 26
So "Circus 1903" production company MagicSpace Entertainment turned to the British puppet troupe Significant Object. Its lead director, Mervyn Millar, had previously collaborated with the South African Handstring Puppet Company on the creation of lifelike and life-size horse puppets for the National Theatre of Great Britain's blockbuster "War Horse."
"It was a long process to be able to make this elephant really come to life and move in a way that made it look as heavy and gigantic as if real," Painter said. "We have three puppeteers for the mother elephant 'Queenie,' plus an outside controller to work the trunk at times to give her extra animation. And then for her baby, 'Peanut,' we have one puppeteer on the inside and then another on the outside to also work the trunk."
Queenie and Peanut aren't the only stars of "Circus 1903." The show features circus performers showing off feats of strength, balance and dexterity.
"The idea was to go back to 1903, which was a really important time for the circus," Painter said. "Barnum and Bailey had been touring Europe for five years, so they had gone out and found acts in abundance that people in America maybe hadn't seen before."
MagicSpace auditioned many acts to historically correspond to what audiences would have seen at the turn of the last century. To Painter's amazement, many performers had circus troupe relatives stretching back to that era and were able to provide historic input on what had been passed down through the generations.
"We wanted to go back in time and sort of revive that sense of old circus during its heyday like a celebration," Painter said. "The danger and the showmanship take the center spotlight of the show."