BWW Review: CIRQUE DU SOLEIL Soars at Sam Houston Race Park
When I was six or seven, my father took me to the circus. Not just any circus: "The Greatest Show on Earth," Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, under the big top. The memory has faded with the years, but I have never forgotten it. Flashes of light and color, the sounds, the smells, the thrill of something quite unique; it's all still there if I reach for it.
The great American circus is all but gone now, killed by a century moving too fast, by the animal rights groups, by the economics of a traveling show, by what many see as the irrelevance of it all. And I think that is too bad, but there it is.
Now, I'm all grown up. I review theater, ballet, opera, for crying out loud. I've become a sophisticated observer of the cultural scene, far too sophisticated for the circus, right? Nope.
So when I got the chance to review Cirque du Soleil's KURIOS, I jumped at it. I had never seen a Cirque du Soleil show. I had a vague idea of flashy, over-produced Vegas, something I should think beneath me, but the little boy in me was yelling, "CIRCUS! CIRCUS!" and I thought, "Yeah!"
First, I was invited to a backstage tour and photo op on the day before the opening. I set out into the wilds of north Houston, to the Sam Houston Race Park, which my GPS stridently insisted with increasing urgency did not exist. But it does, and the yellow and blue-striped circus tent on the grounds beckoned cheerfully.
I was met at the gate by a cordial greeter and escorted into the darkened tent, where a rehearsal was taking place, and I was hooked. It's the same as backstage anywhere in the theater - a magical place where secrets are revealed; the magic uncovered. The excitement of backstage never palls for me. In the gloom of work lights, a group was going through the intricate motions of a set piece, like the ritual of some long-forgotten religion.
There are no spoken lines in a Cirque performance. Everything is mimed, and yet the action was perfectly clear. And before you say, "Oh no! No MIME!" - relax, it's not that kind of mime. No one is trapped in a glass box, or pretending to walk a tightrope. It's a kind of silent-movie acting, and it seems perfectly natural.
The shows are all created around a theme, and the theme drives the performances. Employing performers from all over the world - aerialists, mimes, gymnasts, dancers, and some who defy category, the show uses no animals, except for a couple of invisible ones.
Cirque du Soleil is a Canadian company, based in Montreal, Quebec, founded in the early 80s by Guy Laliberté and Gilles Ste-Croix, both formerly street performers. Cirque du Soleil has since become a recognizable brand world-wide, and is often associated with its resident shows in Las Vegas, as well as touring shows across the United States.
KURIOS, Cabinet of Curiosities, written and directed by Michel Laprise, creates a world vaguely 19th-century, with overtones of the French filmmaker Georges Melies. It's a world populated by fantastic beings, all going about their business with a will, whatever that business may be. It doesn't really matter though, because your disbelief is suspended from the first scene.
There is very little use in trying to describe the show piece by piece. I'm not even sure I could. Suffice to say that it starts with a jolt and never lets up, each act topping the one before, and you never want it to end.
The performers, athletes at the top of their form, go from one "death-defying" act to another. I'm not good with distance estimates, but I'd say that the top of the tent, or "Grand Chapiteau" in Cirque-speak, is at least as tall as a three-story building, maybe more, and the aerialists use its full height. They wear safety wires, but there is no net, except for one breath-taking sequence where a huge net is used as a trampoline, propelling the artists to the very top.
Unlike the circus, nothing is made of the danger element, but there is certainly a potential for disaster. Or at least, so it appears. But the thrill is in the seeming ease with which these beautiful beings soar, and the mastery of their craft. It's ballet without gravity, and it astounds.
No review would be complete without a mention for costumes, sets and props, which are, in a word, magnifique. (Oh, come on. You didn't think I'd get through this without using the word, did you?) No detail was left untouched, and no matter how nonsensical the concept, the finished product was perfectly believable.
A standout was a group of mermen, whose articulated tails as they "swam" through the air were a sight to behold.
By now you will have concluded that the seven-year-old boy in me came alive again for those two wonderful hours, and I could see it again right now. I wholeheartedly recommend you do the same. By all means, bring the kiddies if you want, but check your cynicism and world-weariness at the door, and let yourself go with this one. It's a joy.
Cirque du Soleil KURIOS, CABINET OF CURIOSITIES runs thru May 9, 2017 at Sam Houston Race Park. For information, visit cirquedusoleil.com/usa/houston/kurios.