When: Wed., May 31, 8 p.m.
In a year in which "the Greatest Show on Earth" closed after one hundred forty-six years and clown sightings became a staple of the news cycle, it's safe to say that the Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air) is the best thing to happen to circuses in recent memory.
It's not a straight-up circus of course, but rather a podcast that reimagines the circus milieu as a sort of variety show of the mind. The show takes the form of a vintage radio program emanating from a grand ballroom atop the Eiffel Tower. There, a self-doubting janitor named Julian (portrayed by Julian Koster, the show's creator) works his menial rounds and badly wants to find a way in to the world of the radio stars and performers (voiced by a fine cast of supporting players like John Cameron Mitchell, Tim Robbins, and Mandy Patinkin). Not just to be among them but, perhaps most dangerous of all, he desperately wants to perform. In private moments, he pours out his anxieties to the show's patient narrator, who does his best to dispense sage advice to Julian, who, we learn, is "fated to ruin everything." Should we doubt our protagonist's struggles with the real world, this entire self-contained community exists solely in his own head.
If that sounds like a kind of out-there premise, look to its source. As a member of Neutral Milk Hotel, Koster played on the widely revered, shambolic indie classic In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Following that band's breakup, he took an idiosyncratic path that included an album's worth of singing-saw Christmas carols and numerous side projects. His main band, Music Tapes, supplies music for the podcast.
The premise may come across as fanciful, but the treatment isn't necessarily whimsical. The show's aim to entertain as well as unsettle is evident from the outset. Each episode includes a segment of "real people telling real stories on tape." The pilot concludes with a spooky segment in which an older woman recounts a tale from her childhood about a law firm where her mother worked, whose partners successfully represent the defendant in a sensational child-murder trial before enjoying a celebratory dinner ... of him.
With its period flavor and fourth-wall-breaking structure, it recalls elements of The Singing Detective and even Jack Torrance's conversations with Lloyd the bartender in The Shining. But the baroque flavor of Koster's imagination renders this circus a concoction all its own. And its conceit is ideal for a live venue, where the audience becomes implicated in the proceedings. —David Klein