Everywhere you look, there's more to see

Review: `Cirque' verges on over-stimulation, but its magic wins out in the end.

March 02, 2001|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN STAFF

I think it was the gyrating tubes that distressed me so.

Something perfectly amazing was going on in front of them. Perhaps it was the gymnast doing a handstand atop seven stacked wobbling chairs, 24 feet above the stage floor. Or the guy rolling around inside a giant hollow wheel that he was maneuvering with his feet. Or the two Mongolian contortionists who literally tied themselves into knots.

But I couldn't take my eyes off those tubes. They were life-size, blunt-nosed, colored a reddish pink. As those flexible cloth hoses sniffed and probed around the stage, I couldn't help thinking of an elephant's trunk, or ... well, never mind.

The point is that I was distracted by the effects. "Neil Goldberg's Cirque" has too many strobe lights, too many fantastic costumed characters and set pieces that have nothing to do with the action on stage, too much loud and grating music that, worst of all, is accompanied by a singer intoning made-up words.

In fact, we're bombarded throughout the show by every type of stimulus except the type that would have helped, the kind that focuses the audience's attention on unfolding events. Too often, a breathtaking athletic feat slipped by before I noticed it, because there was no drum roll, no ringmaster to alert me that something spectacular was about to occur.

And that's a shame because, at its core, this show is quite remarkable.

A "cirque" is a circus without animals, but with acrobats and clowns. There is no dialogue, and Goldberg's version eschews the Big Top for a traditional stage. According to a recent article in the Detroit News, cirques date back to 1874, when Jules Verne built the largest circus in France, called Cirque Municipal. The new form of entertainment, consisting of a one-ring circus that borrowed liberally from theatrical techniques, spread throughout Europe.

Reassuring echoes of that original tradition remain 127 years later in the current "Cirque," from a modern variation of a trapeze artist (a man who performs stunts while swinging on orange chiffon scarves) to a human spider, who uses a rope to twist from the stage ceiling to the floor with unnerving speed, to the plinky, tawdry circus tune that plays before the show formally starts.

Cirques' chief pleasures are similar to those provided by dance. The two dozen performers are spectacular athletes, and when the show focuses on them, it's mesmerizing. There's a difference, though: Goldberg isn't concerned with using bodies to create beautiful stage pictures or with using movement to illustrate something profound about the music; it's telling that the production credits list a technical director and costume designer but no choreographer.

Instead, he's interested in showing his athletes master seemingly impossible feats, such as the man who climbs a ladder while balancing a pyramid of crystal candlesticks on his forehead - and then climbs back down.

In recent years, such multimedia, crowd-pleasing shows as "Blue Man Group," "Riverdance" and "Cirque" have raised questions about the always hazy border between art and entertainment. "Cirque" doesn't have a pretentious bone in its body, but it makes an impact that some of its more high-falutin' kin may envy.

The performers might not consciously strive for beauty, but they create it. They might not consciously try to convey a message, but they communicate one. The acts aren't just virtuoso physical feats; they also work on a metaphorical level, and that's what makes "Cirque" so exhilarating.

Any woman who juggles a job, children and a husband is an expert on balance, even if she can't dance on a cylinder. Any man who holds two jobs to feed his kids knows all about strength, even if he can't hold support the weight of three muscled performers. And all those who have resisted the temptation to cheat on their romantic partners are masters of self-control, even if they've never twisted a foot behind their backs until it touches an ear.

"Cirque" subtly helps us celebrate our real-life moments of grace, flexibility and courage. And what could be more magical than that?


When: 8 p.m. tonight and tomorrow; 2 p.m. tomorrow and Sunday. Through March 5.

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

Tickets: $26-$40.50

Call: 410-481-7328

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