When best buds Beren D’Amico, Louis Gift, and Charlie Wheeller graduated from the National Centre for Circus Arts in London a few years back, they were faced with a thorny dilemma. The Barely Methodical Troupe, as they are now known, had the chance to craft a piece to showcase their distinct talents, yet needed a hook to make them stand out. Would the piece explore political, literary, or fantasy themes? How about a retro circus act?
Their answer came about organically. The show would embody a subject dear to their hearts — themselves.
In between tech rehearsals, I sat down with the adorably spunky troupe, which now includes newcomer Arthur Parsons (he alternates with Louis, not quite recovered from shoulder surgery), to chat about the genesis and resonance of their hugely popular show “Bromance.” The adrenaline- and testosterone-fueled spectacle has landed Off-Broadway at the New Victory Theater, after a tour of their native UK, other parts of Europe, Brazil, and beyond.
“We wanted to identify what’s interesting about us to potentially evoke onstage,” said Charlie, the most gregarious of the group. “The physically demanding closeness, especially between these two [points to Louis and Beren] performing hand to hand and being on top of each other, and the emotional intensity, it just spoke to us. We realized, ‘Oh yeah, this is something we want to talk about.’”
“We decided to strip it back and talk about what we know,” Charlie continued. “Being friends and caring for each other and trusting each other. We spend our lives saving each other’s lives. And then putting them in more danger,” he added with a devilish grin.
According to Charlie, “Bromance” is a bold departure from ordinary acrobatic fare.
“Usually there’s a base, a really big guy who throws a tiny lady or tiny guy. That’s cool,” he explained. “But it’s not as interesting as watching these two big guys do it. Dancing across the stage, being as agile as the small performers. That is supreme.”
The daring, frolicsome “Bromance” tests the limits of platonic male affection through an extraordinary, magical mix of performance styles, fusing traditional circus acrobatics with contemporary movement and wry humor. Charlie, now a dazzling master of the Cyr wheel, started out with b-boying, Beren with tricking and taekwondo, and Louis with parkour and freerunning. All of them were essentially self-taught.
“When we started in school, everyone else had a formal background in dance or gymnastics or circus,” Beren recounted. “We didn’t know the names for any of the tricks. We came from backyard disciplines where we would just throw ourselves around. We saw the tricks we wanted to learn and went off on our own and naturally put on our own spin. We invented a new discipline, in a way.”
“We didn’t care so much about perfect lines or pointing toes,” added Louis. “So when we trained together, we naturally had a spark. A bromance, you could say.”
But when Louis was sidelined with a shoulder injury last year, they needed to replace him yet retain the special chemistry. So they tapped Arthur, a year behind them at the circus school.
“It was crucial to find a replacement for our beautiful Louis that we knew,” said Charlie. “And that we cared about and who cared about the show. We wanted to make sure the intimacy wasn’t fake. That we are real friends is a big part of it. With the four of us here now, we’ve got the Dream Team.”
“The intimacy stems from doing acrobatics together,” said Beren. “It forces us in close proximity. We are comfortable touching because we have to, that’s how we achieve our tricks. When we hold hands, it sparks the idea of: Why are males holding hands? It’s not a very common thing, but why not? It’s nice giving someone a hug, being close. In the male world, there’s a weird stigma about it.”
So why are so many folks uneasy with such male intimacy?
“We haven’t been asked that question before,” Louis said. “It’s baffling that people are so uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s because, as a man, you might not want to show sensitivity or softness because it implies weakness or lesser male status.”
Directed by Eddie Kay and first seen at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2014, “Bromance” starts by depicting how these guys met, then explores the idea of close interactions like holding hands. As it progresses, we witness their journey of becoming relaxed with such intimacy.
Although “Bromance” is about the joys of friendship, it also depicts the flip side, like competition and jealousy. The piece illuminates the vulnerability that comes along with getting close to someone. It also plays with the idea that three can be an awkward number. The classic quandary of threesomes.
“It sets off a two-versus-one dynamic,” said Louis. “Everyone has a one-on-one connection, but there’s also a group identity and a duo identity. When you are the person left out, is it okay to be over here but still part of the group?”
“There are these three egos flying around on stage,” added Charlie. “A clash of the egos.”
While the response to the show has been overwhelmingly positive, do these straight guys ever get pushback from people who think they are acting, well, too gay?
“We’ve never been accused of that,” said Charlie. “The closest vibe to negativity is when we see a male friend and go in for a hug and realize he’s not comfortable. They’re like, ‘Ugh, I never hug guys.’ I’m always surprised about that.”
One of their most gratifying responses they received was a Facebook message from a gay man who was guarded about his sexuality and really loved the show.
“He said he was straight-acting, no one really knew,” Louis recalled. “When he told certain friends he was gay, the relationships cooled like that [snaps his fingers]. He said it was gratifying to see a show where three straight guys can have that intimacy. It’s not about sexuality, it’s about friendship. It normalizes the closeness.”
Now that “Bromance” has been touring for well over three years, there is a danger that the show might start to feel perfunctory or too polished. Wary of such pitfalls, the award-winning troupe makes an effort to tweak the show and keep it fresh.
“We try to surprise each other onstage,” said Charlie. “There are lots of little moments of improvisation throughout the show. We take the opportunity to make the other guy laugh.”
“I’ve cracked up at the worst moments,” Arthur said, as they all erupted in guffaws. “I get really upset with myself. But I power through it.”
“If it feels real, you see the friendship come through,” Charlie said. “If I see Arthur laughing, then I’m probably going to laugh. It’s just a beautiful snowball from there.”
“It’s more amusing to see a spontaneous joke than something rehearsed to be funny,” Beren said. “It’s just raw humor.”
According to Beren, each troupe member strives to push himself, adding in a trick from his distinct discipline from time to time. “It keeps us on our toes, even if the audience doesn’t know it’s new.”
In fact, for the run at the family-oriented New Victory (this show is recommended for kids as young as seven), they had to modify a few moments to make the show more “kiddie friendly.” The New Victory, it should be noted, must be commended for bringing such an unabashedly inclusive, forward-thinking show to young audiences. And the kids absolutely love it.
When I suggested they consider an after-hours, adult-centric version, the guys seemed keen on the idea.
“It might be easier for us to go in that direction than toning it down for family audiences,” Charlie said half-jokingly.
Perhaps Arthur best summarized the gorgeous, heart-pounding ethos of “Bromance.”
“There is an intensity when working in a group with acrobatics,” he said. “When you are coming so close to danger, you can make really big mistakes. But when you do something amazing, you feel so close. There’s so much adrenaline and camaraderie. It does feel a bit like love.”
When the interview ended, I got up to say my farewells and stopped myself from instinctively reaching out to shake hands. Lucky for me, it was emphatic hugs all around.
For a taste of the bromance, check out m.youtube.com/watch?v=vcbUS-EZAFY.
BROMANCE | Barely Methodical Troupe | New Victory Theater, 209 W. 42nd St. | Through Feb. 25 | NewVictory.org for schedule, tickets at $16-$43 | 60 mins., with no intermission