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Theater People: clowns on the cutting edge

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In some ways it's easier to perform as a couple," says Julie Greenberg, who does just that with her fiance Jeff Jenkins in The Midnight Circus: When Circus and Theater Collide. "You need so much trust in this kind of work. If I'm going to fall, I know he's going to catch me."

Greenberg and Jenkins are actors, and we all know how sensitive actors can be, but when she talks about falling and catching, she's not speaking metaphorically. The Midnight Circus, which the couple wrote, directed, and produced, is an intensely athletic show incorporating elements from both theater and, as you might expect, the circus: juggling, acrobatics, stilt walking, and clowning.

The couple's interest in the circus originates with Jenkins, who in fourth grade happened to wander into clown alley (where clowns wait when they're not performing) at a Ringling Brothers' Barnum and Bailey Circus at the old Chicago Stadium. "Instead of kicking me out, they invited me in," he says. The clowns showed him how to juggle and let him try to ride the unicycle. After high school, he enrolled in Ringling Brothers' Clown College, an intensive 12-week summer clowning program--"my guidance counselor was like, you're going where?"--and then was invited to perform with the show as an apprentice.

"At first my folks dismissed it--yeah, yeah, yeah. But when I appeared at the Stadium and my uncle the plumber and my uncle the truck driver and my uncle who owns the tavern and my parents saw me, they thought it was the most amazing thing: there was their son, walking on 12-foot stilts while midgets danced around between his legs."

He toured for two years with the show, but grew tired of being a small fish in a three-ring pond. He moved back to Chicago and started acting in off-off-Loop theater and hustling for roles in TV commercials. He met Greenberg, who'd been acting at places like Bailiwick and Shakespeare Rep, on the set of a Bud Light ad, and then again when by chance the two were cast as the only two characters in a small-budget film being shot in Asheville, North Carolina, where their friendship deepened.

Back in Chicago, Jenkins found himself missing circus work, so he started getting together with a group of like-minded actors and performers on Friday and Saturday nights to practice tumbling and clowning. He invited Greenberg to join too, but she hesitated. "Jeff, I don't know anything," she remembers saying. "But within the first 15 minutes they had me doing a flip-flop"--that's circus for a back handspring.

Greenberg and Jenkins soon discovered that their off-stage chemistry translated well onstage. As a team, they've performed in Lookingglass Theatre's circus outreach program and Circus Smirkus, which tours New England every summer, and last season they taught clowning and slapstick to the cast of Defiant Theatre's Ubu Raw, an extremely physical and energetic version of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi.

But clowning around together isn't all fun and games: "If we've just had an argument--" Greenberg starts.

"Yeah," Jenkins pipes in.

"The slaps get a little harder--"

"The kick on the butt is a little more crisp--"

"We have gotten into some screaming matches right up to the curtain line. Then the curtain goes up and--" here Greenberg holds her arms up like a performer making a grand entrance, or a woman who's just won an argument "--yeah!"

The Midnight Circus opens at 8 PM next Thursday, January 30, at the National Pastime Theater, 4139 N. Broadway, and runs Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays through March 9. Tickets cost $15. For more info, call 773-477-2761. --Jack Helbig

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Julie Greenburg, Jeff Jenkins photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.

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