Watching the hour-long “throwmance” Perfect Catch—as I did twice this past weekend, when it played the Family Stage of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas on New Haven Green—I kept thinking “This would have killed on the old Ed Sullivan Show.” That’s meant to be a high compliment—Sullivan performers, whatever their artistic medium, were fast, friendly and exceedingly skilled. Perfect Match’s artistry, coupled with an old-school chipperness and amiability, made me pine for those old Sunday night TV variety shows.
Then I realized that Perfect Catch would have done just as well as a vaudeville act in the early 1900s, or on silent movies in the 1920s or as a musical comedy interlude in the 1940s or in a cabaret theater in the 1960s or in the New Vaudeville movement of the 1980s. It wouldn’t have had a chance in the Golden Age of Radio, but you can’t have everything. Last weekend, this bonafide New York small-theater hit was neatly refitted for Family Stagegoers waiting for concerts on the Green to start.
Perfect Catch is a fluid, sustained, narratively sound and highly amusing framework for a series of awesome juggling routines. I found myself as impressed by the construction as by the juggling. But the juggling is intense, and you could pull any one bit out of the show and have a great stand-alone bit.
My personal favorite was the part just after officemates Michael Karas and Jen Slaw first realized their affection for each other and went out on a date. They pull a large restaurant menu out of a drawer in one of the file cabinets which serves as virtually the entire set for the show. (The cabinets themselves serve as desks, doors and tables.) Along with the menu comes a large hand puppet—one of those Muppet-like “Whatnot” puppets you can have made at F.A.O. Schwartz. To the dining couple’s consternation, the puppet starts lip-synching the Sinatra standard “The Best is Yet to Come.” Karas gets up to confront… his hand, with aggressive puppet attached, and enters into a brilliant bit staged to the accompaniment of the Muppet-popularized tune “Mahna Mahna.” While the puppet mouths the nonsense words, Karas tries to elude the annoyance while juggling masterfully with his unpuppeted hand. Karas tosses balls at the face of the puppet. The puppet snatches one of the balls with his mouth. The puppet is suddenly behind Karas, or around his neck. The action is frantic, yet the puppet doesn’t miss a word of the song and Karas reacts in his own character to the onslaught of “Mahna Mahna”s.
Karas has several other great solos in Perfect Catch, including a ring-juggling routine where he flips the rings across the front of his face using only his ears. His partner Jen Slaw has just as many stand-out solos in this well-balanced show. She does extraordinary things with a boxes and a ball, and her diabolo work is poetry in motion. Slaw also has a great range, from sultry to tomboyesque to cute and shy.
When Karas and Slaw unite—duo routines which Perfect Catch works naturally into its boy-meets-girl storyline—they are at least as impressive together as apart. They “huggle”—hug while juggling behind each other’s backs. They juggle while holding hands (to two different versions of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”). They adorably challenge each other, adding clubs and balls and apples and whatever to numerous routines where one of them starts juggling and the other jumps in too.
I’ve seen a lot of juggling shows where the juggling itself doesn’t come off as spectacular as it should because the performers are all bluster, or have given little thought to the overall presentation. Perfect Catch has a plot, a tone and obviously a rhythm. It’s not strident and overbearing but disarmingly sweet and laidback. It has a story with a beginning, middle and happy ending. And you watch happily, knowing that at the center of this pleasant hour are some exceptional exhibitions of juggling. What well-balanced, high-flying fun.
In its early years, the International Festival of Arts & Ideas became known as a showcase for longform outdoor-friendly circus-theater entertainments. That was partly due to the proximity and good timing of an international street-performers conference that used to happen in New York around the same time as Arts & Ideas. (The festival currently benefits in a similar way from having the largely indoor Cirque Totalement festival held in Montreal every July). Nowadays, catches like “Perfect Catch” are few and far between, and the festival knew just what to do with it—put it under a tent on New Haven Green where some patrons could buy seats and sit on benches, and those who didn’t mind standing could watch for free from outside the tent. The fest also invited Karas and Slaw to lead a master class in juggling. High marks to all for juggling issues of appearance, accessibility, importance and entertainment.