Cirque du Soleil Kurios: Thrilling Acts and a Cultural Experience (5 stars)
by Johnny Monsarrat
Cirque du Soleil: Kurios runs May 26 to July 10, 2016 at Suffolk Downs.
Cirque du Soleil fills your head with so much "Wow!" that it escapes and you say it out loud without meaning to. Wow! Wow! Then it builds to the next level, and you'll hear yourself exclaim, "No way!"
That's what I thought when Rola Bola, who takes an act we've seen before, balancing on a ball, and then flies it straight into the unknown, like the aviator he is dressed as. You'll never guess what he ends up balancing on at the end.
Cirque du Soleil: Kurios is of course a circus show, but it's also a cultural experience from Montreal that proves that Canada is more foreign than you think. Kurios is the steampunk version of the world famous traveling circus, which employs 1,300 artists today and has been seen by 160 million people since 1984. You'll find vacuum tubes, phonographs, and old time bicycles. They even have a track around the outer edge of the stage that allows props to rumble past like trains. Every scene has fantastic visual effects, giant brass-colored props, and even the scene changes between acts are beautifully choreographed.
But what you find most is people. The show has some 40 performers, with larger than life personalities. The tent venue is small enough that you can really connect with the artists. Towards the end of Cirque du Soleil, I picked out one because he was the smallest and looked a little older. His troupe were acrobats with red hats, Banquine, who throw each other high into the air. I decided I would pay special attention to what he was doing. His role was to help in the background. He spotted another performer's landing. I wondered what it was like for him to play a just a supporting role. Then by the end he was thrown to the top of a tower of men four people tall and I felt like I was rooting for him personally. I wish I could have met the cast, to ask all my questions. Why do you do this? Are you worried about getting hurt? How is that even possible?
The production works to tell a connected story through its many acts. Each performance is artistically linked through music, the steampunk visual theme, and through the "hosts", the clown characters who start the show and appear in nearly every act as observers and sometimes participants. They represent us, the audience, taking a metaphorical journey and meeting all these new performers as they go. (And sometimes are a distraction from the main act, but I suppose that's an old circus tradition going back to having three "rings" of action taking place at the same time.) You may occasionally see something you have seen before at a circus. But mainly you will see something impossible to forecast, even while you are trying to guess what comes next. The show is a little interactive, which parts taking place in the audience. Before the show, some nights performers outdoors on top of the tent will greet you as you approach. You can interact with photos of Mexico on a giant HDTV tablet display in the atrium, eat unsweetened crepes, and even get on stage and cross a bridge.
Through the steampunk theme, there's an emphasis on human power throughout the show. Banquine is basically a trampoline act without a trampoline. Instead they lock arms and use sheer muscle to launch each other around. Another act, the Russian Cradle Duo, does a trapeze act with no trapeze. They lock wrists and perform an a ballet in the air. Aerial Straps is a duo who fly around on long straps, often under their own strength. Thank goodness they never collided. (And I was pleased to find that the show did not shy away from harnesses and nets at appropriate times. Anyone who goes to the circus hoping to see an accident has a psychopathic lack of empathy for the performers.) This back to basics approach to human stuntwork makes it visceral, easier for the audience to imagine themselves in the role on stage.
While the show is foremost a circus, it is also a cultural experience. In American media, quirky characters like Barney the Dinosaur are themed in a way to make them seem weird but completely harmless. In Montreal, they like the surreal. The show is just so weird! It's a little bit freak show. It keeps you guessing like two hours of WTF, and some of it is dark and disturbing.
For example, the show begins with a guy juggling severed hands, creatures with no face, and puppeteers moving arms and legs with no body. One of the acts, Contortion, opens with its four women wriggling on a giant mechanical hand of God like the arms of a evil squid. Then they twisted so completely that they made me exclaim, "Don't do that!" and hoped they wouldn't end up with spinal problems. Ladies, thank you, but don't injure yourselves trying to impress us! There is also a type of weird in the show that isn't dark but just takes you out of reality entirely, such as the Upside Down Diner. In this a fully laid out dinner table with guests in Victorian dress is mirrored by a similar dinner upside-down on the ceiling 80 feet above. Antics escalate, they interact, and draw you into an Escher painting.
But as well as dark and weird, the show is also joyful, amazing with happy energy, and possibly even profound. This is all done mostly without speaking, presumably to aid their travels internationally, but perhaps also with the influence of mime from France by way of Montreal, where Cirque du Soleil is run. One of the mime acts is a clown who pulls a woman from the audience and pretends to woo her while encountering a series of physical slips and playing the roles of the housepets as well. Another is Hand Theater, a delightful puppetry without puppets, using solely the hands of the actors. The hands "walk" around like people and pets, engage with the world, and even come out into the audience.
I spent the show wondering if the cast knew they sometimes disturbed the audience. I was thunderstruck with the feeling, What just happened? It's great but do they know it's so weird to us?
Then after the show I was able to speak with one of the managers, and now I think I get it. Circus performers are people on the fringe of society. They risk their lives and engage in a strange mode of life. By keeping the audience off balance, they are just drawing us into their world. Ultimately, what as an American I thought of is weird is just a cultural experience. Our clowns dress in yellow and wear flowers. Their clowns may be dressed in dark colors with a tiny lady living in their mechanical belly (one of the ten smallest people in the world is part of the cast), or wearing a lab coat and carrying a dismembered llama head on a stick. Yes, it's intentionally weird, but it's also joyful. In Montreal they can be one and the same, perhaps like how Halloween here in the United States is both dangerous and fun. That's what makes the show more than a circus. It's foreign culture.
As I left the show at Suffolk Downs I noticed excellent traffic. They really know how to get cars in and out efficiently, unlike Xfinity Center, formerly Great Woods. You can also get to Suffolk Downs by subway, which is what I did. On the way out, inspired by the show, I noticed that Revere Beach was a short hop away on the subway. So I went there.
The nighttime was nearly total on the beach. I still wore my daytime business suit and carried a satchel, making me feel out of place, a freak in a place meant for swim suits. With nobody around and the city far behind me, I felt a little afraid in the dark, but also brave. I went right up to the oncoming and unpredictible rush of waves, risking ruin to my dress shoes. I stood awestruck as a visitor to three worlds: the sky above me, the ocean before me, and the beach around me. It was beautiful beyond description. I was part of something greater than myself, an infinity.
That's what it feels like to see Cirque du Soleil.
Cirque du Soleil: Kurios deserves more than 5 stars. It is a must see! You and your braver children should catch the show before it flies away into the clouds.
See the show at www.cirquedusoleil.com/kurios.