Slapstick, singing, juggling and jokes

Part circus, part musical theater, Squirm Burpee Circus is at the forefront of a new international vaudeville movement. The circus troupe performed a monthlong run late last year at the off-Broadway New Victory Theater in New York City and will finish a national tour this spring.

"American history is steeped in the tradition of vaudeville," says Cole Schneider, artistic manager of Squirm Burpee. "Shows like 'I Love Lucy' were a direct pass from vaudeville. The genre also exists in 'The Simpsons' and 'Family Guy.' "

Vaudeville was at the heart of American show business from 1881 to 1932, comments Trav S.D., a leader in the new movement and author of "No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous." According to S.D., vaudeville was so ubiquitous that "if you were beyond the reach of vaudeville, then you were really in the sticks."

Squirm Burpee's troupe, under the direction of Armitage Shanks of Seattle's Circus Contraption, has created a vaudevillian melodrama. Less burlesque than others, it's a family friendly show with variety acts set against the backdrop of a melodramatic plot.

"We've put our routines into a storyline that includes a villain who is out to destroy the circus," says Schneider.

It includes slapstick acts interspersed with dancing, singing, juggling and jokes. Schneider plays The Lovely Little Lolo, who is naive and pure-hearted; Squirm Burpee Artistic Director Mike Huling plays Mike the Handsome; and Dave Clay is Dashing Dave.

Signature pieces include Huling's and Clay's dapper gentlemen juggling act and a humorous, choreographed swing dance featuring Schneider and Huling.

The show is hosted by The Baron Vegan von Hamburger, played by Jason Knauf. The Baron has sworn to put an end to the circus. He rides around the stage on an antiquarian cart powered by a monkey and invents various contraptions in his attempts to bring about the circus' demise. One such contraption is The Vacuum Hysterium, designed to suck the applause from the audience.

"The show's skits allow us to engage the audience," says Schneider. "There's one that uses an adult volunteer, and The Baron chooses his evil assistant from the audience. He usually picks a kid. And they love it."

Audience members also are encouraged to boo the bad guy and cheer the good guys.

Mike Huling and Dan Huling are co-founders of Squirm Burpee. The two originally formed Handsome Little Devils Productions in 2000 in Denver when they began performing on sidewalks and street corners. Clay, who graduated from Ashland High School, decided to become a professional juggler after attending a Flying Karamazov Brothers show with his father at the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater in Medford.

"When we began to develop our first ensemble show, Dan coined the name Squirm Burpee," says Schneider. "We thought the name was just bizarre enough."

The troupe did a lot of research when setting out to write the script for Squirm Burpee's show.

"We've had access to archives of footage from live vaudeville shows," says Schneider. "There's a lot of original vaudeville choreography and concepts that we use in our routines."

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