BWW Reviews: Cirque du Soleil's TOTEM Tent Rises in Irvine's Great Park
In its decades of existence, Cirque du Soleil has continuously wowed audiences worldwide with its often exquisite, eye-popping visuals and its display of jaw-dropping feats of seemingly super-human acrobatics. Their recognizable---and often imitated---brand of big-top thrills has once again returned to Southern California, this time ready to dazzle Cirque newbies with an all-new touring production of their 2010 show TOTEM, currently performing under a large tent erected at the Orange County Great Park's Festival Site through December 29 (the traveling troupe of 46 will then move to the Santa Monica Pier for additional shows starting January 17, 2014).
Whimsical, poetic, and surprisingly clever, TOTEM centers around the theme of our planet's evolution, and traces---in the Canadian troupe's distinguishable, abstract way of storytelling---the symbiotic relationship between humans, animals and nature itself. This global trek, written and directed by Robert Lepage, takes the audience on a journey from humid swamps, sunny beaches and sweltering deserts, to snow-covered plains, tall grasslands, and even wild, untamed jungles---dipping into the realms of both mythology and science. Using gorgeous projections designed by Pedro Pires against a purposely tilted circular stage, the audience time-travels (and, at times, time-jumps) to various locales with rich visuals that are so vivid, you'd think the environment is alive.
Along the way, we meet our early human ancestors, an environmentally-conscious "Tracker," and a Darwin-esque scientist that represents man's constant curiosity for invention, discovery and exploration. There's also a peculiar, sparkly "Crystal Man" that descends from the heavens like a human disco ball---almost like a twinkly twin of the rubber-suit-man from the first season of American Horror Story (less creepy, but still... shudder)
But all of these periphery aspects are pretty much high-brow window-dressing to the actual main attractions: TOTEM's incredible circus acts---those astonishing, risk-taking demonstrations of grace, style and athleticism that induce both excitement and, understandably, fearful anxiety among its audience (suffice it to say, recent news of unfortunate mid-show accidents from other Cirque shows made for an extra-anxious opening night audience). Fortunately---for both the audience and, of course, the circus artists themselves---every human toss-and-catch was well-executed and every human leap-and-dismount landed with great synchronicity. Whew.
Though the number of circus acts in the show feel a bit paired down from other Cirque du Soleil productions (making room for more silly "clown" antics and lyrical dance breaks), there are still plenty of oohs-and-aahs to go around. Aside from Carl Fillion's fascinating, constantly-transforming versatile set that morphs seamlessly from vignette to vignette, laudable highlights include the "Rings Trio," a flirt triangle high-in-the-air where two shirtless adonises compete for the heart of a ripped beach gal; the quintet of ladies that juggle bowls while riding unicycles; the cute-sy, romantic trapeze duet between Guilhem Cauchois and Sarah Tessier; the hypnotic "manipulation" sequence featuring "Scientist" Greg Kennedy, and the roller skating duet between Massimiliano Medini and Denise Garcia-Sorta.
Naturally, TOTEM saves its best for last: the grand finalé of "Russian Bars" where ten artists (some acrobats/jumpers, some bar holders/spotters) clad in colorful, glow-in-the-dark costumes that evoke a lost South American civilization. For a rapt audience, the guys leap, fly, bounce, and balance in these criss-crossed bars. Talk about working without a net (literally!), these guys really know how to defy gravity.
Also worth applauding: the colorful, body-conscious costumes designed by Kym Barrett, the moody lighting designs of Étienne Boucher, and the lovely, ethereal singing by featured pit vocalist Esi Acquaah-Harrison.
Overall, TOTEM---like the rest of the Cirque ilk---is definitely entertaining, and is worth checking out while it's performing within driving distance. While, sure, the show's filler of babbling clowns, audience participation (very minimal in this one), and "deep" themes and transitions sometimes feel a bit dated---well, by now, its by-the-numbers formula is certainly something Cirque du Soleil has all but patented for decades---the mesmerizing, awe-inspiring acts of athleticism and human magic still manages to make you tremble at The Edge of your seat.