Aerialists Finish with a Bang in ‘Up In Smoke’
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“Don’t light things on fire, kids,” College senior and director of the event Samantha Karpinski said, waving to the crowd — as if anyone would take her advice after watching her fearlessly twirl, swallow and spit flames just seconds before. This was the trend last Friday and Saturday night just after sundown as the Oberlin College Aerialists lit up the tennis courts with their circus caricatures, physical prowess, artistry and, yes, real fire. The crowd couldn’t get enough of Up In Smoke.
The show’s prologue, choreographed by Karpinski, introduced the characters and their storylines as Karpinski, the ringmaster, watched over her performers with a playful eye. The rest of the night showcased the performers’ talents and developed their characters in a series of solo acts using a variety of apparatuses.
“The aerialists have a history of being a very family friendly show, and we wanted to do something a little more grown-up for this,” Karpinski wrote in an email to the Review. “When I talked to people about what their feelings were about the first time they saw someone performing with OCA, most said they were impressed [or] interested because they were afraid when we did drops and things. I decided I wanted to take that fear and push it a little farther (while still staying very safe).”
Incorporating elements beyond the simply daring, Karpinski aimed to break the fourth wall, or at least knock on it. College sophomores Linnea Kirby and Molly Barger and double-degree sophomore Christy Rose crawled through the crowd when they weren’t onstage, staring into the faces of audience members; College senior Jessica Mikenas stalled her flaming poi toward the audience for a heart-stopping second in her act; a “hypnotized audience member” (College junior David Miller, a member of OCA planted in the audience) was tied in a straitjacket and hung by one foot until he broke free.“There’s something very safe about being in the audience, and I wanted to push those limits,” Karpinski noted.
With open flames adding an extra element of danger, the show took about a year to come to fruition. “I started looking into getting permission to perform fire on campus early in [the] fall semester, and only finally had things completely nailed down two weeks before the show,” Karpinski said. OCA hired John Mitchell, a fire specialist from Brunswick, Ohio, who has an Ohio Flame Effects Type III license, to maintain fire safety during rehearsals and the show.
The theme of the show was difficult for the audience to put a finger on, but the content, design and execution of each act left it withoutcomplaint. Karpinski admitted that even she couldn’t put a name to the show’s story, other than deeming it a “Southern gothic.” Still, the lighting, designed by College senior Ben McLean, the black and white costumes, the use of a light box to convey messages to the audience without speech and the character’s interactions with their apparatuses and each other during and between acts gave Up In Smoke the loose structure it needed to keep the audience hooked.
In light of Up In Smoke’s aim for more “grown-up” antics, the show featured a slew of College seniors who were able to exhibit the aerialist skill and knowledge that they have accrued from working with OCA over the years. Jessica Lam, the show’s “bad girl,” climbed the corde with a vengeance while Hayley Larson played the role of a flirty “ghost” on the singlepoint trapeze, allowing her dance background to surface in her elegant and creative manipulations of the apparatus. Lena Lane and Karellyn Holston partnered up as a pair of wide-eyed wind-up dolls for an act on the lyra, a suspended hoop, which spun as they contorted in flawless unison. Jessica Mikenas wowed the crowd as the “butler,” swinging her fire poi expertly without once losing her expression of complete composure. Karpinski also took her time to shine in a multi-apparatused solo, whipping her fire staff around with just one hand and dangling from the trapeze by the crook of her elbow, shooting a look of revelry toward the audience.
The exceptions to the “adult” rule were equally talented and fun to watch. Kirby, Bargerand Rose successfully embodied demonic “rabid puppies” in both their acrobatics and stackedtrapeze acts, swinging each other across the stage and snarling at the audience. Audience members’ hearts went out to College junior Rachel Webberman, who convincingly played the innocent, caught up in the madness and trying to escape via a mournful number on the silks. She is pursued by the rabid puppies until — to the audience’s delight — she joins them in the end, becoming a member of the sinister assortment of characters.
The threat of inclement weather endangered the show’s two outdoor performances, but luckily for those who were able to find the “north-most tennis courts,” the show went on. The fine attention to visual detail, the performers’ commitment to their characters and apparatuses and the stunning use of fire made for a breathtaking final show of the semester. However, anyone sticking around for commencement may encounter further aerialist treats. “We are planning on having impromptu shows during [the] week, so keep an eye out for those,” Lane said. Who knows — maybe with some more nice weather, fire will make another guest appearance.