Swords, shields, flips — and the fire to perform

Tricky balancing act: “Dragon Slayer” ensemble member Mark Curtis Ferrando plays everything from a hungry actor to a pizza chef to a subway acrobat.
Photo by Jenna Elizabeth
By Scott Stiffler

Plenty of people dream about running away to join the circus, but precious few have enough core strength to make it in the world of spandex, sawdust, and high-flying derring-do.

San Francisco Bay Area native and Sunnyside transplant Mark Curtis Ferrando made the leap from gymnast and theater kid to practitioner of eye-popping partner acrobatics when he began training at Circus Warehouse — a Long Island City facility whose high ceilings and 8,000-square-foot sprawl allow ample room for trapeze work, catch and balance practice, and the mastery of striking a vertical pose in the middle of a horizontal pole (an absurdly difficult task Ferrando excels at — see his social media for proof).

Since graduating from the Circus Warehouse professional program in 2012, Ferrando has found steady employment, albeit in the show-to-show patchwork manner befitting one whose resume touts the on-demand deployment of tumbling, juggling, handstands, trampoline work, theatrical combat, guitar playing, and whistling. No stage work to offer? No problem. Toiling behind the scenes as a technician or house manager is another way he pay the bills.

“When I was in theater school,” recalled Ferrando, who has a B.A. in Dramatic Arts from UC Davis, “I couldn’t help but build sets and light things. I’m obsessed with this world of expression, and I want to know about all of its parts.”

The up-for-anything Renaissance man seems to have found a perfect match in his current project: Ferrando acts, sings, and serves as fight choreographer for the medieval-tinged “Dragon Slayer: The Musical.” Presented as part of the New York Theatre Festival’s Winterfest, bookwriter and lyricist Tony Scialli’s alternately fizzy and frank tale of harsh reality colliding with heroic fiction is as much a hybrid as its titular flying, fire-breathing creature.

Set in a dingy Times Square diner, aspiring writer Lenny is penning a tune-filled show in an attempt to fulfill his grandfather’s insistence that he’s destined for success on the Great White Way. His laser-like focus causes him to push away Lenore, a waitress at the diner and a talented dancer with dreams of her own (whose snarky “I Love a Jerk” number is one of the show’s high notes). Callous Lenny suffers a crisis of confidence similar to the knight in his musical, who can’t face another dragon once the magician who gave him his powers is revealed as a fraud. Zany, life-altering chaos ensues in the second act, as damsels and villains from this fantasy begin to appear in the real world, just as Lenny’s big break is finally in sight.

The literary and musical theater references peppered throughout “Dragon Slayer” give it a fun sense of self-awareness that eludes its main character for much, though, thankfully, not all of his hero’s journey — which includes several action scenes that take place in Lenny’s imaginary medieval realm. When knights and dragons meet, Ferrando is the guy responsible for injecting a sense of danger into their epic clashes, while keeping his fellow cast members safe from harm.

“There are a lot of safety issues,” Ferrando said. “Even with fake fighting equipment, the purpose [of stage combat] is to keep people safe so they can do the show over and over again without injury. We work with swords and shields, so you really have to know how to roll — where to strike, and what eye contact to make beforehand; to know your partner is ready.” That puts the victim firmly in control. “When it comes to the knight being thrown,” Ferrando noted, “the dragon has to follow what the knight is doing — and the knight makes it look like it hurt.”

In addition to creating and directing the fight choreography, Ferrando is part of the dance ensemble and vocal choir. He also shows up in various scenes as a pizza chef, sailor, subway car entertainer (complete with backflip), Times Square’s Naked Cowboy, counterfeit watch vendor, and, finally, the part he was born to play and nailed a long time ago: aspiring actor.

“It’s a privilege to be working on a show in New York,” said Ferrando, who has racked up dozens of theatrical and circus credits since his arrival in 2011. “There’s a lot of magic here. There’s something about people believing that New York is a city of possibilities, where dreams come true if they work to make it happen.”

“Dragon Slayer The Musical” plays Saturday, Jan. 14 and 21 at 3:30 p.m. at Hudson Guild Theatre (in Manhattan; 459 W. 26th St., btw. Ninth & 10th Aves.). Visit www.dragonslayerthemusical.com for tickets ($18). Artist info at www.markcurtisferrando.com.

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