Tantalizing, titillating, terrifying. “The Soiled Dove” is all that and more. Be prepared for an evening of thrills, trills, and toe tapping as circus performers, musicians, and dancers provide a variety of entertainment. And enjoy a sumptuous feast and tasty swill as you absorb the evening’s amusements.
The Vau de Vire Society presents a run of “The Soiled Dove” for the fourth year in a row, so the format has clearly won an audience, especially the with the young and hip. Patrons are encouraged to wear period dress, which starts conversations and allows for interesting people watching. It is fair to say that the show will not suit everyone, but for very competent circus activities and engaging music numbers, it hits the spot. All takes place under the Tortona Big Top circus tent at Alameda Point.
For those unfamiliar with the term (I was), soiled dove is a fitting characterization of a fallen woman. It was used in the brothel culture of the late 19th century. This production is appropriately set in that era, around the turn of the 20th century in San Francisco’s decadent Barbary Coast.
Forty performers, mostly dressed in fancy saloon and cathouse garb from the Old West, offer entertainment at a rapid-fire pace. Two stages hold small bands and singers, while circus acts, dance, and hints at debauchery take place on balconies and performing platforms within the audience space. Meanwhile, “loose women” mingle and schmooze with guests. But pictures describe better than words, so the embedded photos should give a good idea.
For the production to work, the circus must work. All manner of acts are presented – contortion, aerial straps, hoops, hand balancing, and more. They are dangerous and daring, and when there is the opportunity, they’re also risqué. San Francisco is actually a center for circus training and development, so it is no surprise that each performing athlete meets the standard.
The circus acts are interspersed throughout the evening, while much of the time, some form of musical performance is going on. The bands draw on many musical genres from jazz to rock to klezmer, and soloists or ensembles often warble along. Some vignettes are presented. One depicts the real San Francisco legend Emperor Norton, who declared himself Emperor of the United States, but the skit doesn’t elicit much response. Noise and distractions make it difficult for even a brief narrative to get through.
One part of the evening that is all aces is the dinner crafted by Work of Art. It exemplifies the best in catered dining and is good enough to warrant sharing the menu. Appetizers are delivered by strolling servers during cocktail hour – smoked salmon crudo, curried chicken on sweet potato chip, and roasted eggplant bisque. Salad is stone fruits in a thick, zesty Indian-like sumac sauce. The main is a fork tender pastrami short-rib steak accompanied by a corn grits compote with chanterelles. And the desert is a S’mores jar – chocolate pot-de-creme with marshmallow cream, dulce de leche, and graham cracker crumbles. Creative and totally delicious.
“The Soiled Dove” fits in the immersive performance category, which speaks to the growing demand for viewer participation in entertainment. The concept calls for involvement on the part of the audience. In this case, patrons are always free to mill about, and in-character performers intermingle and interact with the audience. “Tony and Tina’s Wedding,” which lives on endlessly, was the big breakthrough in this category. Currently, “Speakeasy,” with several interrelated entertainments going on simultaneously in different rooms is enjoying great success in San Francisco.
In sum, “The Soiled Dove” is a complex production that offers diversion with many forms of entertainment. It is a good fit for a night out with a date or a small group of friends.
“The Soiled Dove” is produced by Vau de Vire Society and plays in its Tortona Big Top at 2001 Ferry Point, Alameda, through July 1, 2017. All photos by Beppe Sabatini.