Machine de Cirque is the Ultimate Well-Oiled Human Machine (5 stars)
by Gwen Walsh
Machine de Cirque, the new five-man circus troupe from Quebec, is a thrilling balance of musical genius, laugh-out-loud funny, vulnerable humanism, and mind-blowing acrobatic skill. From moments of quiet tension to cacophonous drum solo eruptions, your eyes will be glued to the stage for the entire hour and a half long performance, and you will hear yourself gasping out loud, maybe even grabbing the arm of your neighbor. In addition to being wildly entertaining, the show also evokes introspection, and touches on topics that are at the forefront of North American social culture. Selfies included.
While there are a few words in English and French peppered throughout, there is virtually no dialogue, making the show accessible to all audiences. Instead, the momentum comes from the soundscape. At Machine de Cirque, everything is an instrument, from bicycle tire spokes, to painted PVC piping, to squeaky sneakers. The lead musician for the show, Frederic Lebrasseur, does not engage in the acrobatics, but his skill is evident through the avant-garde musical score.
The set, while minimalistic, is both creative and dynamic, consisting of a scaffolding centerpiece equipped with rolling platforms, a giant see-saw, and trapeze equipment, and flanked by a set of fire poles. The performers use every part of the metal structure throughout the show, often in unexpected ways, jumping from level to level and scaling up and down, seeming to defy gravity. The scaffolding is accented by pulleys, utility lights and large panels of stained fabric, creating an industrial, post-apocalyptic mood. The five performers wear either denim overalls or work shirts and suspenders, making them look at-home in what I imagine to be a turn-of-the century factory or shipping yard.
This dystopian theme was first addressed during an introduction by a representative from ArtsEmerson, the nonprofit arts institution which is hosting Machine de Cirque at the Paramount Theater from 9/21 – 10/2. Besides the set and costumes, though, I did not see much evidence of this leitmotif; while many acts do not have a plot but rather are driven exclusively by the incredible physical skill of the troupe, the passages which do have a narrative seem to focus more on the contemporary human experience. In one number, performer Maxim Laurin, finds himself surrounded by people masked with pictures of himself, and in another, Ugo Dario takes a member of the audience on a hilarious mimed first date. To me, the underlying theme of the night is vulnerability in a modern world. The most direct manifestation of this being a number in which the five men are nearly nude on stage, protected only by a white bath towel.
“The Machine” is both the nautical, steam-punk-esque apparatus at the front of the stage which acts as a metronome during scene transitions, as well as the group themselves. The men become tools for each other – levers and fulcrums – and when they move in perfect synchrony they are the ultimate well-oiled human machine. It is evident that they are very disciplined and well-practiced, but their coordination goes beyond that. They seem to know each other’s movements as well as their own, and I noticed that in addition to communicating through body language and eye contact, they use different sounds during the most physically-demanding circus choreography.
About half way through the show, the acrobats take a much-needed water break on stage, and manage to make the act of drinking water engaging. This is a pure embodiment of what makes this show so unique: drinking water is the most relatable and mundane moment of your day, but at Machine de Cirque, it’s a moment of exuberant humanism. An easy 5 stars.
Machine de Cirque will run through October 2nd, 2016 at the Paramount Theater, 559 Washington St, Boston MA, 02111. For more information, call 617-824-8400, or visit www.ArtsEmerson.org.