Exploring memory and loss with circus and clowning in MemorabiliaKimzyn Campbellon November 17, 2022 at 2:27 pm

Like many of us, Salvador the inventor has a lot of gadgets. Instead of accessing TikTok with his smartphone, he has an admittedly more retro and cartoonlike system, featuring giant levers and light-bulb colander hats to go with his tape deck and phonographs. His aesthetic is steampunk hoarder melded with cottagecore quaintness, but the end result of his stuff is the same—it’s a place to store his memories. Salvador likes to relive certain aspects of his life, the beautiful moment of falling in love, the excitement of youth when you imagined you could save the world . . . but also the sadder moments, like the strain of a song at the edge of a memory, or the heartrending loss of one’s partner. 

MemorabiliaSat 11/19 7:30 PM and Sun 11/20 3:30 PM, BateyUrbano, 2620 W. Division, reservations through Brown Paper Tickets, $20

Played by La Vuelta Ensemble’s cofounder, Jean Carlos Claudio, and directed/cocreated by their fellow cofounder, Raquel Torre, this show has been a long time in the making. Claudio says, “In 2017, I had a bad injury that really set me back. I couldn’t do much of anything, circuswise, so I started writing ideas for performances I could do once I recovered.”

But the genesis of their company goes back even further. Claudio and Torre formed La Vuelta in 2014 and have performed many shows around North America, from Puerto Rico (their original home), to Argentina, before settling in Chicago. “Our artistic partnership actually precedes our romantic relationship. Jean Carlos and I became close friends and later partners while working together for a circus company back in Puerto Rico more than ten years ago. Then when we started La Vuelta . . . we would cocreate, codirect, and costar on almost everything,” explains Torre. 

The theater ensemble has a focus on physicality through clowning, acrobatics, and juggling. This creative duo has developed both together and independently through their ensemble work as well as through their separate studies and careers: Claudio as a graduate of the full-time circus program at the Actors Gymnasium, and Torre through her post-graduate work performing, directing, and choreographing around town (working with UrbanTheater Company, Filament Theatre, Shattered Globe Theatre, the Gift Theatre, Opera-Matic, and Rough House Theater). 

Torre describes the perks of working with her life partner in a professional capacity. “Because so much of Memorabilia is sourced from Jean Carlos’s life—for example, the melodica song, Bratsch’s La Noce’, was the song Jean used to play during my mime act, way back in the day—it’s definitely a plus to know the performer intimately, especially for the vulnerable clown presence Jean Carlos has.”

But producing this show in their neighborhood of Humboldt Park is a dream that has been a long time in the making as well, she explains. “UTC has been one of our biggest supporters in Chicago . . . It’s the space we feel at home in and where it felt right to produce Memorabilia. As a Latinx-focused company, we share similar values and curiosities in terms of what it means to produce community-rooted work that is not euro-centered. We hope to perform Memorabilia in many places, but UTC will always be our home base.”

“La Vuelta” means to spin and twirl, to take a walk around, to return, and when Claudio is in character as their clown self, they do just that. They are that rare combination of a skilled clown and a powerful circus artist, able to balance these not necessarily opposing skills by vacillating with perfect timing between audience interactions, and acrobatic feats. 

Torre explains why she thinks circus works so well in Claudio’s performances. “In Memorabilia, circus also allows us to capture the fantastical element of our memories, in which we always imagine the past grander than it really was. Most of the circus elements in the show exist in the memories Salvador shares, so we don’t really know how much is 100 percent true. We all do that, retell stories bigger than they were.” Claudio does this with seemingly effortless appeal, striking a magical balance of just enough connection to convey their vulnerability and charisma, and just enough motion (hand balancing, tossing diabolo, acro dancing) to transport the audience to the rich inner world of Salvador. 

As the story unfolds, we learn more about Salvador’s life. He’s having trouble recalling some memories, for example. He gets a little turned around and confused fidgeting with his gadgets every day, and yet he’s lonely and relies on them to get by. It’s a bit heartbreaking to take that journey with him, but a poignant journey it is. Salvador means “savior” in Spanish, so Claudio made the connection between the character’s name and the action of saving memories: a connection inspired by the tragic loss of his own grandmother to Alzheimer’s.

“He’s afraid of losing his memories, so he wants to store them like you’d store objects you’re not actively using but think they might be useful later,” says Claudio. “The tragedy is that in his search to preserve, he’s actually damaging his brain and provoking more forgetting. And while he’s wanting to remember important memories, he’s also repressing other crucial ones.” 

It’s perhaps ironic for a show that explores the importance of human connection to come out of the isolation of the COVID-19 shutdown. But on opening night, the sold-out audience responded enthusiastically to the whimsical tragicomedy of La Vuelta’s Memorabilia. The company plans to tour the piece beginning in December after this short run at UTC’s Batey Urbano venue concludes Sunday.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022 at the Museum of Contemporary Art

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