Smoke seeps from beneath the hanging fabric, unfurling like a hand beckoning us to come closer and listen to the stories of a long-ago love. Cheerful music plays under thunderous applause marking the finale of the show. Two lost souls are still stuck in their memories, wishing they made different choices, wishing they trusted their hearts when they had the chance. Perhaps, now they can.
Masquerading as a present-day estate sale, CoAct Productions’ The Sideshow uses the displayed artifacts as a means to transport guests to a 1930s circus, where we are introduced to its integral performers: aerialist Nora (an ethereal yet mischievous Katelyn Schiller) and sad clown Clovis (the gruffly charming Dakota Loesch). The two enchanting entertainers are stuck within their memories, unable to find freedom from reliving the same time loop, and need our help. They take us on a journey through their past, both separately and together, to see if we can aide them in the choices that could provide a way forward, as well as a happy ending.
The majority of the show is on rails, with guests only able to watch the events unfold before them. As such, fans of immersive theater might find their lack of autonomy disappointing. While guests can interact with the actors when prompted, the active participation is kept to a minimum, and only used when one character pulls half the group aside to tell their individual story. The more important memories are explored in a traditional theater format when the two characters come together. Despite the majority of the experience being sit-and-watch, audiences are completely immersed in the dust-bowl era circus landscape with absolutely stunning sets, pitch-perfect performances, and the inclusion of a dessert-and-wine pairing which is expertly woven into the narrative and further expands the relationship between the characters.
CoAct Productions thoroughly transforms a black-box warehouse in Glendale into a break room and two dressing rooms for circus performers. Although the characters are disappointed with their lot in life, there is something inherently whimsical and romantic about the circus of the 1930s, and The Sideshow capitalizes on that to its full advantage. Complete with hay bales, a rack of sparkling costumes, copious fan letters, and other circus paraphernalia, the sets are as decadent as the cake offered to guests. The world that audience members find themselves in is stunning and all-encompassing; the air smells of cotton candy and peanuts, the bulbs strung across the ceiling provide the dim lighting, the rooms are separated by walls of tents and fabrics, the thin layer of fog stands in for the dusty landscape, and the sounds of circus or jazz music firmly establishes time and place. The intricacies and details of the sets alone are worthy of admission.
The intimate Sideshow comes to life through the absolutely brilliant performances of Schiller and Loesch, and its wistful narrative. Watching the two characters interact after hearing their individual stories is an emotional journey, one I was delighted to take. With secret motives, can Nora and Clovis each get the idyllic futures they desire? Can they trust one another? Can they admit how they really feel about each other? I found myself rooting for the two “peas in a pod” to come together over the course of the hour spent in the past. I hoped. I believed in romance in this dream beneath the Big Top.