By Betsy Wolfe
Since 1984, 155 billion spectators have seen a Cirque du Soleil show. The company is concurrently running 19 different shows that perform as touring arenas, touring big-tops, residential and resort shows in Canada, Mexico, South America, the Middle East, Europe, Australia…and in the USA: Walt Disney World and eight separate casino resorts in Las Vegas.
Cirque du Soleil is almost everywhere on the globe, but is it just a circus-type attraction, is it theatre, or somewhere in between? Can a musical theatre enthusiast take this kind of show seriously?
CdS productions are known for their spectacle, and their latest iteration, KURIOS: Cabinet of Curiosities, now touring under a big-top at the United Center parking lot in Chicago, is no exception. On opening night, the 4000+ seating big top commanded a full house. The party atmosphere in the adjoining welcome tent areas was inviting and abuzz with networking and roaming performers, posing with patrons for selfies and handing out freebies. While that was fun, it felt like going to an attraction on vacation more than being at the theater. But upon entering the main stage area, all that changed.
The first visual upon entering is the intricate ¾-round stage, back-dropped by a giant standing half gear wheel; the semi-circular hole at the bottom forming a tunnel to the backstage area. The sides of the stage are flanked by gizmos and more intricately arranged gear contraptions built around bubble tanks housing animated electrified sea animals, with ticking sounds and steam bursts.
There are clear references to Steampunk styling in the stage and props. What is Steampunk? Cosplayers and theatre folk know. It’s a science-fiction and fantasy treatment of aesthetic designs influenced by 19th century steam powered machinery. What if the inventions of the puritanical Victorian age, such as the steam engine and clock gears, became the primary technology to take patrons into a retro-styled future using anachronistic technology rather than to evolve to electric or computers? In the end, this era is conveyed in imaginative contraptions, art, architecture and costuming for a future as the Victorians might have imagined it. That’s Steampunk.
One might wonder how innovative such a concept would be for a company such as CdS, since the Steampunk movement has been around a a good 35+ years. KURIOS writer and director, Michel Laprise, makes a great choice to avoid the more obvious conventions of Steampunk by avoiding the Victorian era, and setting the mood more firmly in the turn of the century (year 1900) French industrial age. This allowed some electrical influence and much Euro-styling. Lights flashing, Tessla coils, bronze phonographs, a rich varnished wood flooring covered with lit bulbs and plugs under glass domes give the eerily lit center ring a fascinating Frankenstein lab feel, but with the stylish wonder of the a French Wizard of Oz set.
Set and prop Designer Stephane Roy creates a unique, dramatic spectacle that rivals the clock dragon and multilevel stage from Wicked. Martin LaBrecque compliments the staging complexities wonderfully with his incredible light designs that alternate between joy and darkness, while keeping an air of mystery as focus is drawn to anything but the constant scene changes. The staging, lighting and set evoke a distinctly theatrical feel. But what about plot, costuming, dance and music?
Admittedly, the story is a bit loose. The limited plot revolves around a “Seeker” dressed like a kooky scientist. This central character imagines a world built on wonder, so he creates stylized robots from scraps to assist him as he investigates his cabinet of curiosities. This is a reference to pre-museum era collections of interesting artifacts, oddities and creations kept in special cabinets, put on display for conversation or even a small viewing fee for the public. The “curiosities” come to life and form the series of acts in this production. More plot details may be read here.
As one might expect, the show revolves around typical circus feats of acrobatics, balancing, juggling, contortionists and aerial acts. These acts flow from platforms, the stage and in the air via bouncing on nets or hanging from cables or straps. Yes, in that sense it is most definitely a circus. To suggest those components exclusively define the KURIOS expereince, however, would be an egregious mistake, since other elements became the real driving forces of the show. These elements are decidedly rooted in musical theater.
The costuming, designed by Philippe Guillotel, conjures up images from additional film, literature, video gaming and stage such as Metropolis, The Phantom Toll Booth, Bioshock and Cabaret, respectively. While these influences may sound disparate, the total is indeed greater than the sum of its parts. Typical Victorian Steampunk costume conventions like goggles and tilted mini-hats are replaced by scoop-necked striped shirts, tall hats, french singlets, cabaret leggings, furs and long coats, mixed with curvy leather, hammered iron and mechanical shapes. The European flavor evokes a more gender neutral approach that in America might be interpreted as somewhat feminine, even for the male characters and performers.
A sub theme for a handful of costumes incorporates aquatic animal leotards. The women contortionists wear beautifully graceful coral reef fish-styled leotards, appearing like nymphs. The Acro Net act of bouncing acrobats, all male, also wear aquatic leotards, but to Americans the outfits are not masculine and a bit silly. The curved fins on the head look like mouse ears or a divided bonnet, and the frilly curved fin projections above the thigh and groin area resemble a stiff short skirt ruffle.
It does add to some of the physical comedy these characters utilize in their trampoline-like gymnastics, but could have been much cooler to look at. In general, the quirky, imaginative costumes are amazing and inspiring and perhaps enough on their own for many theater-goers to see the show.
While each performer does his or her own make-up, the excellent designs they follow come from Makeup Designer Elena Uranis, who effectively accommodates movement and costumes to create effective visuals close up and at a distance.
Every single movement done onstage requires a choreographer. The acrobats, the emcee, the cabinet’s characters and the Seeker do very little on stage without a dance in their steps. One could argue there is more actual choreography in this production than acrobatics. The synchronization, the flowing movement of groups, transitions and character interactions are simply gorgeous.
Separate from the three talented acrobatic performance designers, Rob Bollinger, Germain Guillemoy and Boris Verkhovsky, KURIOS boasts five choreographers. Yaman Okur, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, and Susan Gaudreau, the three dance choreographers, come to this show with backgrounds in theater, opera, contemporary, jazz, swing and ballet dance companies. Acrobatic choreographers Andrea Ziegler and Ben Potvin also come from theatrical and operatic backgrounds with Potvin having additional gymnastic experience.
The final component in this theatrical experience, and what could arguably be the primary driving force of all drama, humor and theme, is the music. When patrons step into the big top area, underlying sound rises from the seeming chaos of lights, sparse fog and the audience finding their seats. This production, unlike other CdS shows, has a pre-show that places characters all around the stage, in the aisles and among the audience for a good 15 minutes before the show actually begins.
One audience member is pulled onstage to work a bicycle to apparently power some gizmo, while other audience members are being filmed and projected onto a canvas wall. More characters converse with children or hand out clown noses to patrons. Three fantasy characters are lowered from the top point under the tent peak down to the stage to walk around and intermingle with other characters or patrons. Out of this disorder, the music arises to a full blown happy song, and unfortunately sounds so perfect and that one is sure it’s piped-in, pre-recorded music. Even the appearance of the costumed “musicians” with instruments walking in a line through the rows of audience, each wearing a train car head-piece, make the audience sure this is faked, since they don’t seem to miss a sound, the instruments aren’t all full sized and it’s difficult to tell that they are really playing.
There’s a singing voice and drums and perhaps other instruments that are not accounted for in the train line-up, so disappointment manifests Until patrons realize soon after that they really are playing music and that the singer and other band members are up inside the large gear wall, playing their brains out while the small train players make their way back. For most of the show, the musicians stay in their own sections up and down the wall in the divided segments of the half round gear over the tunnel. Sound Designers Jaques Boucher and Jean-Michel Caron are brilliant in balancing every nuance. The street singer, Eirini Tornasaki, moves to various locations throughout the show, delivering a huge variety of singing styles from French folk, jazzy rock fusion to the haunting “Departure” in which her voice resembles a musical saw tremolo. Credited with composing and Music Directing are Raphael Beau and the team called Bob and Bill. Much respect goes to them for the variety and creativity in the music lineup which accompanies the action, complimenting every artistic element of the production, while being worth the admission as concert fare on it’s own.
Director of Creation (which seems like the theater equivalent of the Artistic Director) Chantal Tremblay is to be congratulated for putting together a truly wonderful and unique experience, that at its heart is definitely worthy of the musical theater label. Family friendly, this show is a much-see.
Cirque du Soleil’s “KURIOS: Cabinet of Curiosities” runs in Chicago outside the United Center through September 20. Tickets may be purchased online here.