October 15th, 2008

Wauwatosa Historical Society House Tour

The weekend of October 4-5th was just packed. Saturday afternoon was the annual home tour sponsored by the Wauwatosa Historical Society. We had seen a notice of this in the paper, and were interested since the tour would include a number of fascinating looking older homes along “Wauwatosa Avenue” (N. 76th St.,) which we had frequently admired from a distance. The period covered an original settlement home from the 1840’s (now operated as a museum), a number of “Queen Annes”, up to a “California Bungalow” originally built in the 1920’s. All the homes were in lovely states of preservation/restoration, but the two particularly yummy specimens were coincidentally numbers 1 and 2 on the tour. (However, they happened to be the first and last places we toured, since we skipped Two due to the long line and came back to it at the end.)

House number one was a particularly nice example of the Queen Anne type, complete with an attractive “Painted Lady” exterior scheme. The interior had been tastefully remodeled with a new main staircase that suited the home and added nice light. Prior owners had done much to preserve the home, and the current owners had added an extensive collection of Victorian-era antique furniture and accessories, augmented with authentic reproduction wallpapers and moldings.

House number two was what I tend to call an “Italianate villa” style, with stucco exterior and red tile roof. This house was designed by the same man that had done the Uihlein mansion on Lake Drive we had toured a couple of years ago and shares some of the same gracious features, such as an enormous living room and lovely dining room, both of which open immediately off the front entrance. There was a grand central staircase, illuminated, as in the Uihlein house, with a large window inset with stained glass. The remainder of the house was similarly commodious, and the new owners had added an additional large three-season room attached to the garage that would be splendid for summer entertaining. The house also had a large yard with a sunken “garden” section. This was another house we would happily have moved right into--.

Cirque du Soleil, “Saltimbanco”.

I had gotten us tickets for “Saltimbanco,” for the evening of the 4th, a Cirque du Soleil production that had a short run in Milwaukee. “Saltimbanco,” which means a mountebank or charlatan, (from the Italian "saltare in banco", which literally means "to jump on a bench") was one of Cirque du Soleil’s earlier productions, first running in the 1990’s, revived a number of times since then, and has toured extensively. The show’s format, which works in the style of a European single-ring circus, lends itself well to a touring format, and will fit into a large number of venues. That does not mean all venues fit it equally well, however. The Bradley Center, which was built as a basketball/hockey stadium, has few really good seats for this sort of thing. Most of the seats in the regular stands are rather far away from the action, and close-up chairs added on the floor end up looking up at the stage from a rather acute angle. That said, we got seats that had a good angle on the action, and opera glasses brought in details when desired.

The show began with clowns (the so-called Grotesques) interacting with the audience. As we later learned, there is a basic troupe of performers that work in most of the group functions, with a few specialist performers. So, most of the cast clown, sing, dance, move gear, and perform spectacular acrobatics, which makes them one of the hardest working groups of performers I have seen.

After the clowning, there was a musical number which introduced the rest of the cast, including singer Chantal S. Blanchard, whose operatic voice accompanied a number of the acts. The first formal piece was the “Adagio,” a classically styled balancing act with three performers, which was done with great grace and style. This was followed by the “Chinese Poles,” in which the troupe performed exceptional feats of strength and physical control. The show features no animals, so what is done is “limited” to what can be done by humans—mostly. Some of the things we saw, I would have sworn that human beings could not have done. Such a feat first shows up in the Chinese Poles, when one of the men climbs the pole using only his hands, while holding his body out away from the pole at arm’s length! (A video of this performance can be seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQ3FldV-Tmo ) This performance made me realize how incredibly strong people can be without being hugely bulky. Truly amazing.

After the Poles, the chief clown, “Eddy” (Amo Gulinelo) did the first of two spots where he did extensive mime interacting with the audience, supported by clever sound effects. These pieces are quite funny but run a bit long until one realizes that the rest of the cast are using the time to make extensive changes of costume and makeup.

Eddy was followed by a number of specialty performers interspersed with musical bits: the “Artistic Bicycle,” (Ivan Do-Duc), Juggler Luis Miguel Velasquez Terry, and the “Boleadoras” (Adriana Peguroles). These were mostly classical types of acts, but carried to new levels of skill and innovation. In particular, juggler Terry juggled first three, then four, then five, six and seven balls at such amazing speed that a machine would have been hard put to match it. The Boleadoras act is a percussive dance routine, wherein the performer rhythmically strikes the floor with a weight that is spun on the end of a rope while keeping up a Flamenco-like accompaniment with the feet. (Technically, these are “poi” rather than the multi-ended South American bolas, but probably far fewer people would know what a poi was than a bolas--.) This requires excellent fine motor control and spatial awareness.

After intermission, sisters Ruslana & Taisiya Bazaliy performed together on the duo trapeze, which act also amazed one at the extent to which one human being can catch and hold another using only the strength of one’s feet, among other maneuvers. The “Russian Swing,” which came next, is hard to describe, but it is a muscle-powered device that is capable of shooting an acrobat thirty feet in the air. Most of the performer did various tumbling moves, but what made the crowd roar was the small woman who performed a double (at least) back somersault to a perfect landing on a balance beam borne on the shoulders of two men who were in turn standing on the shoulders of two other men. One who knows a bit about these things knows that the positioning of the catchers is vital to stunts of this type, but if they had to adjust more than a fraction of an inch to make the catch this time, we could not see it.

Eddy gave another spot, in which he involved a very game member of the audience, while the cast changed. The next act was another strength balancing act, followed by a musical number, followed by the “Bunji” routine. This involves four acrobats on trapezes, who are hooked into bunji harnesses that allow them to spring from the floor of the ring to the trapeze, and float down again, all choreographed to the Cirque’s original music. Equally as important to the act were the ground men, who precisely controlled the height of the trapeze bars and the tension of the bunji harnesses. This reminded me of the beautiful “Cranes” act we saw years ago at the Moscow Circus, where the acrobats performed an aerial ballet between the trapezes and a trampoline-like net. This was followed by a musical finale, during which we were pleased to give the corps a standing ovation.

West Allis Auto Show

On the first Sunday of October, the West Allis Downtown Merchants sponsor a car show, which brings a couple of hundred or so classics, muscle cars, and hot rods to Greenfield Avenue between South 70th and South 76th streets, which are blocked off so that people can admire the vehicles from every angle. We like the West Allis show because it is very much a hobbyist’s event, and people are not ashamed to show off their “works in progress,” be they ever so rusty, or showing more Bondo and primer than custom paint. The car owners sit with their machines and a ready to talk with the interested, while a DJ plays classic rock over the city speaker system. This year, it did start to rain, but we managed to glance over the whole show before people began closing the hoods and doors--.


Also on Sunday the 5th, we caught a matinee of the new animated film, “Igor.” As can be told from the trailer, it is about the archetypical hunchbacked lab assistant, who aspires to make his mark as an Evil Mad Scientist in his own right. The film’s rather edgy premise is that the small county of “Malaria,” once a peaceful Balkan-esque nation, suffered an ecological disaster that wiped out the economy, and forced the state to exist by the threat of terror, specifically by sponsoring Mad Scientists to come up with ever more horrid inventions, and then extorting payment from the international community NOT to loose them on the world. (Rather like North Korea’s nuclear program--.) Turns out that, although our Igor (voice by John Cusack) is rather good at the science, he is, as befits a sympathetic protagonist, not so good at the evil part. However, that lack is more than made up for by the machinations of King Malbert (Jay Leno), Dr. Schadenfreude (Eddie Izzard) who covets the throne, and his questionably loyal henchwoman, Jaclyn (Jennifer Coolidge).

The movie is clever and amusing, but is not all that funny, nor are the dramatic parts very exciting, which seems to be partly an artifact of timing and script, and partly a matter of indecision about how “black” it wants to be. Some parts are downright disturbing, many of them featuring “Scamper,” (Steve Buscemi) the experimental rabbit to whom Igor has given both intelligence and immortality and who doesn’t want either of them, resulting in a series of (mostly) off-screen suicide attempts. The production and plot borrow liberally but unevenly from “Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Young Frankenstein,” and the old “Milton the Monster” cartoon show, but don’t really gel in to a satisfying whole. End result, amusing for matinee or second-run prices. Animated, but too grotesque and violent for young children.