At first glance, El Circo Hermanos Suárez is a good ol’ big-top circus. There is a ring, and it is inside a tent. Lights flash and music blares. Aerialists soar above the crowd without so much as a safety net. Clowns meander the aisles and mess with random strangers. Jugglers juggle and magicians do magic. Just outside, you can buy any kind of junk food imaginable, including sticks of churros, from a smiling vendor. If you have ever loved the circus, you will likely love this circo.
But if all you know is Barnum & Bailey, the Mexican flavor of the Brothers Suárez may surprise – and then overwhelm – any Gringo expectations. At first you will notice a Latin sensibility, like the juggler with puffy sleeves, a Brazilian flag on his back, and hips designed to gyrate. The hula-hoop dancer may turn herself into a human slinky, but you’ll notice in her movement a hint of flamenco.
Then things get crazy, sort of like the hallucinatory visions you’d have after eating a fistful of peyote. There is the illusionist with burning shoulders, whose outfit gradually bursts into some kind of Mesoamerican god, complete with exploding firecrackers. There are the “Russian Kids,” the most thuggish clowns ever to tie balloons, who look less like delightful mummers than Eminem’s bodyguards. And there is at least one motorcycle, ridden across a tightrope, as a female acrobat is suspended beneath.
Between moments of confusion, the Circo is a pleasure to behold, and although Spanish-speakers call pretty much any show un espectáculo, this circus is truly spectacular. Per tradition, the performers begin with merely astonishing feats, like tossing bulbous yoyos in the air and catching them with string. Slowly they up the ante, until those same string-holders are catching their yoyos while flipping off each other’s shoulders. The showmanship is electric and fun, and the two hours would be blissful were it not for the animals.
Oh, even without the animals, the Brothers Suárez serve plenty of discomfort. When the archer appears, wearing a “Native American” headdress and doing a little war dance, you may find yourself chewing your cuticle clean off. The illusionist with the long nose and weird jacket practically bullies the audience into submission; he presses against hapless adult men, nose-to-nose, and strips them of belts and watches. Up-close, the sleight-of-hand may be awe-inspiring, but from a distance, he looks like a pickpocket dry-humping strangers in front of their children.
Yet the supreme awkwardness begins when the horses take the stage. If you have the faintest weakness for animal rights, you may balk at the equestrian trainer and his two – count ‘em, two – horsewhips. They aren’t the kind of whips you’d use to flog a sailor, but they crack and snap just the same. The seven black stallions trot in circles, wearing the plumes and decorated bridles of fairytale steeds, until the trainer raises his whip and calls a command; the horses stop, turn in a circle, and continue on their way. Remarkable synchronicity, yes, but do we want to know how they learned to do that?
The dog show seems more benign – for the first few minutes. What could be more adorable than a Dalmatian riding a skateboard down a ramp, or a poodle jumping through hoops? Then the stagehands bring out a tall ladder, and the dogs must climb to the summit, leap off, and land on a mattress below. "Best in Show" this is not.
If you’re feeling litigious, you may wonder how the Costa Rican government even permits such an espectáculo within its borders, given the nation’s ban on trained-animal shows. As it happens, Costa Rica only bans the use of wild animals in circuses, allowing for mares and puppies. But given the kerfuffle surrounding Costa Rica’s zoos, it’s hard to believe La Sabana isn’t flooded with protesters; Kivu the lion looks pretty gloomy in his cage, but these are horses getting beaten their entire lives for the entertainment of families. Not exactly pura vida.
Predictably, the Suárez circus is infamous for animal cruelty, and it takes about five seconds on Google to find more blogs, videos and exposés than the average pet-lover can handle. Costa Ricans should know about the Suárez reputation before venturing under the tent’s flaps, because you don’t need to pay PETA dues to shake your head in disdain. When the Brothers Suárez first performed in 1872, such treatment was expected, but nowadays it’s a little gauche, especially in the land of free-range sloths. The Circo has plenty of morally neutral talents to distract you from the canine exploitation, but you will have to decide whether such a venture is worth supporting with hard-earned colones.
Speaking of which: Don’t expect much from the “general” seats. In the case of this particular circus, most of the audience consists of “preferential” patrons, who sit in actual chairs, while the “general” guests are herded into benches near the back. What you save in admission will have to be spent on binoculars. But don’t worry: The horsewhip is audible wherever you sit.
El Circo Hermanos Suárez continues through October, in western San José's La Sabana Park, next to the National Stadium. Admission is ₡8,500- ₡19,000 ($17-$38). Info: 7194-9929, www.specialticket.net.