Leapin’ Lizards

19. November, 2011 Theater No comments


Show #106: Totem, Cirque du Soleil, October 28.

Roller skaters in Totem. Photo by Daniel Auclair

By Sam Hurwitt

Montreal’s Cirque du Soleil produces such a steady stream of shows that either take root in Vegas or tour indefinitely around the world that we get a new one passing through the Bay Area every couple of years. In 2009 it was Ovo, Kooza in ’07, Corteo in ’05, Alegria in ’03, Varekai in ’02, and on and on back to the then-scrappier company’s first visits in the 1980s.  A lot of these recent shows have been long on glitz and glamour, with their arcane names, unearthly music and costumes and slick acrobatic acts, but have felt cold and soulless at the same time. The latest show, Totem, has an unusually comprehensible English name, but that doesn’t make it any easier to pin down what the overarching themes are in this grand-scale amusement written and directed by visionary Canadian theater artist Robert Lepage, who also created Cirque’s Vegas fixture Kà.

A huge green pod or clamshell (or possibly a toadstool) fills the entire stage as the audience enters the mammoth tent, and a big bank of reeds obscures the band behind it. (The set is by Carl Fillion.)  It doesn’t much matter what the thing is, because it rolls away as soon as the show begins as a human disco ball in a glittering jumpsuit descends above it. Under the surface of the whatever-it-is is revealed yet another unknowable thingie, a skeletal dome with more than a dozen acrobats in newtlike jumpsuits sitting cross-legged in a circle chanting “ye ye ye ye ye.” This soon becomes a trampoline act, with the leaping lizards swinging off the bars of the dome like stationary trapezes. The band plays vaguely Peruvian-sounding flute music while a rippling stream is projected on a ramp in the background.

So what’s the theme here?  Hanging out on a lily pad looking for a rainbow connection? Not really, but it’s hard to say what the common thread might be.  A lot of acts are decked out with a smorgasbord of cultural kitsch from around the world, which is also reflected in the music of all nations by Bob & Bill (actually Guy Dubuc and Marc Lessard). An American Indian dancer does a hoop dance in a loincloth, headdress and furry fringed boots. A male rollerskater whips a woman around in a circle, both also dressed by costumer Kym Barrett in Native American kitsch.

But for all the slightly off-putting, “It’s a Small World”-style multiculturalism, that doesn’t appear to be the actual theme either. There are also cavemen and (people dressed as) apes, a Satanic-looking guy in a red suit, and a bearded scientist juggling glowing balls in a transparent cone. Preening, musclebound beach bums try to impress a bikini babe as all three swing from airborne rings to Bollywood-inspired music, but she winds up showing them both up.

Women in sparkly costumes like space-age Vegas cocktail waitresses lie on their backs impressively juggling twirling squares of fabric like pizza dough with their feet and hands. (The music this time is vaguely Middle Eastern, and the background is molten lava. Take from that what you will.) A group of businessmen shed their suits to climb poles carried by each other. (Kinda South African music this time—and I don’t mean to rag on the composer, because this cultural mishmash is actually one of Cirque’s better soundtracks.) And then there are some harlequin space newts that balance and bounce like trampolines on horizontal poles held on stockier harlequin space newts’ shoulders.  So if Totem is supposed to be a trip around the cultures of the world, it’s a brave new world that has such people in it.

As has been true of most recent Cirque shows, the clowning is the weakest point. This time it’s an obnoxious guy in a speedo with Elvis hair and an Italian accent that makes Chico Marx look subtle. As usual, there’s very little spoken language in the show, but what is there—this guy’s vaguely offensive “Oh mama mia!” shtick—makes a good case for there being none at all. Another clowning bit with a sad-sack fisherman juggling an egg from tin pan to pan musically works a little better, but goes on too long.

There’s no one breathtaking circus act to blow the crowd away like the Wheel of Death in Kooza, which came through town a few years ago. But in general the acrobatics and juggling are awfully strong. A seductive dance between a two trapeze duo is beautifully executed—funny and charming and out of the ordinary.

Five women in Chinese opera getups on tall unicycles juggle bowls between their feet and their heads while guys dressed as African bushmen spot them from the sides. (The music here is also Chinese-inspired.) The greatest moment of human connection in the show on opening night happened when a bowl was dropped and a unicyclist tripped over it and fell. When she returned after a brief retreat to regroup, the applause was much more hearty than if everything had gone off dazzlingly without a hitch. It seems telling that amid all the pristine showmanship, the most involving moment comes when things get messy.

Totem runs through December 18 at the Grand Chapiteau at AT&T Park, San Francisco. It then plays March 2 to April 1 at the Grand Chapiteau at Taylor Street Bridge, San Jose. http://cirquedusoleil.com

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