Stage Door Review
Sep 23, 2017
written and directed by Bastien Alexandre,
Cirque du Soleil, Grand Chapiteau, Toronto
September 19-November 26, 2017;
☛ Big Top in AT&T Park, San Francisco, CA
November 15, 2018-January 6, 2019
With its latest show Volta, Cirque du Soleil now has 19 shows playing worldwide and in December with the addition of Crystal that will become 20. Compared with classic big top productions like Koozå (2007) and Kurios (2014), Volta looks like a poor relative and makes one wonder whether CdS isn’t producing too many shows per year and is running out of really first-rate talent. There are only a few exciting acts in Volta, which also has perhaps the worst clown in Cirque history. The real problem, however, is the poor writing and direction of Bastien Alexandre, who can neither tell a story well nor present circus acts to their best advantage.
Volta begins with an introduction so drawn out, you wonder when the show proper will ever begin. The concept is that the audience under the big top is the studio audience gathered to watch the 1000th episode of the futuristic game show called “Quid Pro Quo”. Shood Kood Wood (Wayne Wilson), the clown, is the crowd warmer who tries to see how loud different sections of the audience can cheer. Then contestants are identified with each of the chosen sections of the audience and each section is meant to cheer them on in the game show even though we don’t know them or what the show is about. For someone who finds the herd mentality disturbing, it is both fascinating and a bit frightening how readily the crowd falls for this highly artificial premise with such gusto. Nevertheless, the representative(s) of each section perform some sort of circus act – tumbling, contortion, two-person banquine – with the winner decided by the loudest applause. There is, however, no payoff. All the cheerleading and competition, we discover, is not part of the real show and leads to nothing.
After this waste of time, we find that the game show itself doesn’t begin until the entrance of its superstar host WAZ (Joey Arrigo), clad in a red armoured suit concealing 168 lasers, who leads in a group called the Elites, clad in black and gold and wearing hats surmounted with enormous black pompons. This preening, self-important group is supposed to be what the contestants on QPQ aspire to join. The challenge for the real show is rope skipping. The majority of this routine is unimpressive even with its double Dutch sections since you likely have seen children do exactly the same things on playgrounds except that here the rope turners often cheat by dragging a rope on the floor to help the rope skipper. The the finale, when one person skips double Dutch in the fastest possible speed is remarkable. This winner then sheds the grey patchwork lappeted garb that is common to all the contestants, and is re-clad in the ornate dress of the Elites.
So far what seems like a half hour of the show has passed with only one of the large-scale acts one might expect. But Alexandre still has more setting up to do. WAZ retires to his dressing room which opens up and we seen films of his childhood on the the LED screens that make up two of its walls. The young WAZ has blue feathers instead of hair and when the older WAZ removes his helmet, we see he still has them. Thus, in typical Cirque iconography, WAZ realizes that he has been hiding his “true self”, whatever that is.
An annoying feature of Volta is that to tell us of the various stages of WAZ’s growing up – his former happiness, his being bullied for being different – Alexandre recurs to movies on the LED screens. Look here, we did not come to a Cirque du Soleil show to watch movies. If Alexandre needs to fill us in on WAZ’s meditations about his past, he should use theatrical means to so do. The show does include a character called the Young WAZ (Elena Suarez) and an older WAZ (Pawel Walczewski). Why not use them to enact the past?
In any case, WAZ leaves his dressing room for the city outside. He finds it inhabited by by people dressed like the contestants called in the programme the Greys, people who walk in formation in step with each other, all gazing only at their smartphones not each other, pausing only to take a selfie before moving on. According to the programme notes the Greys “are out of sync with their true selves. Mostly cut off from one another, they settle for their everyday routine, the tedium of repetition”. Yet, as we have seen their goal is to become one of the Elites, who may be famous but, as their similar dress shows, are also all conformists.
Realizing that the show is a satire not just of the Elites but of the common people known as the Greys, should make the audience see that in cheering on the Grey contestants to become Elites, it was participating in an extraordinarily vapid form of entertainment. Unfortunately, Alexandre’s direction is not incisive enough to make this critique of the audience sting. Indeed, why would a CdS director want to ridicule the audience? So it looks more like Alexandre has led his narrative down a path that he subsequently tries hard to erase.
In the city WAZ also encounters a group brightly clad in multiple clashing patterns, supposedly inspired by the colours of India, known in the programme as Free Spirits. These are the people with the extraordinary circus skills we’ve been waiting to see. The only Free Spirit on roller skates is ELA (Paola Fraschini) and she, entranced by WAZ’s blue hair, will lead him on the path of self-discovery. If you thought the overused trope of the “manic pixie dream girl” existed only in movies, well, you will find ELA fits the role exactly. Not only does she serve only to draw the older male character out of his depression but she speaks in a giggly incomprehensible language which emphasizes the manic pixie in her.
As a result of WAZ’s time among the Free Spirits, he throws down his red armour as game show host, leaves clad as a Grey and leaves Shood Kood Wood spluttering as to how to start the next show without its host. The deep moral of the story is that to “Find Your Free” according to the show’s motto, give up your job and join the circus. As a storyteller, Alexandre has finished his tale at the end of the first act, giving the second act nothing further to explore.
The show does feature a number of remarkable circus acts, but Alexandre has a terrible need to keep the stage so busy that he is constantly distracting our attention away from the performers. A prime example is when WAZ meets a performer who represents his young self (Pawel Walczewski). Walczewski performs on a new apparatus called an “acro lamp” which really substitutes a square of metal rungs for a trapeze and has a second square of rungs within the outer square. It is a “lamp” only in having a lightbulb inside the tentlike shade above the squares of rungs. Walczewski does fantastic athletic poses and suspensions from the “lamp”. Unluckily, for Walczewski, Alexandre decides that this is a good time to show off the three narrow articulated hydraulic lifts imbedded in the stage floor. These rise when Walczewski rises making it difficult to judge his distance from the actual floor. Then, while his act is building up to its finale, Alexandre lowers the lifts and has the crew start setting up the stage for the messy parkour act that is to follow and thus further ruins our concentration.
In another example, Alexandre ends Act 1 with male acrobats swinging over the stage on Swiss rings suspended from a bridge that spans two of the Big Top’s four masts. With this he adds two women attached to bungee cords at each end of the bridge and at a 90º angle in relation to it. Then Alexandre adds to this the unicyclist Philippe Bélanger performing fantastic hand-to-hand routines with Marie-Lee Guilbert. The combination of all this makes the stage busy enough. But then Alexandre has more performers take up stations on the outer revolving ring of the stage. Straps fall from the top of the tent. One naturally assumes given all the aerial activity that these will be used as aerial straps. The outer ring turns and the straps, held by the performers and obscuring the view of the rings and bungee acrobats, begin to form an upside down basket weave around the acrobats. Then the ring turns the other direction and unweaves the straps and poof, the tops of he straps are released and they are carried off. So what then was the point of this? It seems to be just a pretty effect thrown into the middle of an act that is unrelated to either the act or the overall story.
On a more minor level, Alexandre seems to be intent on integrating the two singers – Camilla Bäckman and Darius Harper – into the action. He has Bäckman rise on one of the hydraulic lifts to sing to Walczewski on the acro lamp for no reason and periodically sends her or Harper around the stage stage on the spinning outer rings, which only succeeds in distracting us from what is going on on the stage itself.
While there are fine acts that Alexandre’s direction ruins, there are also acts that are not successful in themselves. The sequence involving acrobatic ladders is not at all impressive. Two ladders bother folded in half rise on either side of the stage but still remain bent in the middle when they reach they full height. The advantage of the ladders is that more than one acrobat can climb, perform planks or other suspensions on the ladders at the same time. The problem is that none of these are particularly interesting and the apparatus itself is unattractive.
A worse example is the attempt do parkour on stage. A combination of various boxlike items plus the lifts make up a parkour run, but the effect, despite the evident skill of the performers, is underwhelming. Real parkour depends on the inventive skill of the traceurs in how they cope with new features that come up in their way. Thus, to set up a fixed parkour course on stage destroys the principal point of the discipline of engaging new elements of the environment. If that were not enough damage, Alexandre also has a performer do a tight rope walk between the stage left masts while the action is ongoing. You either have to look at the jam of traceurs and traceuses or the funambuliste but you can’t do both.
The worst part of the entire show are the recurrent appearances of Wayne Wilson as Shood Kood Wood, the clown. His form of comedy is the opposite of subtle. He’s a loudmouth as the crowd warmer, plays all too broadly in a scene with three washing machines and brings obnoxiousness to the fore with the clown’s quest for enlightenment, the comic parallel to WAZ’s quest. For the clown this ends with Wilson clad as a Hindu guru who throws off this cloak to reveal himself in a loincloth that is not like an Indian dhoti but rather a Japanese fundoshi, like sumo wrestlers wear giving full exposure to his cheeks but with a short apron in front. You might that this is already culturally insensitive enough, but then after a few grotesquely sensual gyrations, Wilson begins flipping up the apron to expose the cloth underneath. This has to be the nadir of any clown act I’ve ever seen at Cirque du Soleil.
Strangely, the one act that Alexandre leaves untouched is Danila Bim’s exhibition of hair suspension, an act definitely not to try at home. We find Bim wearing an ornate hairdo seated in lotus position on a large cushion. The cushion is taken away and she seems to be floating in mid air, until we realize that she is being held aloft by the metal ring woven into her hair. The athleticism of the act is Bim’s ability to take on poses drawn from yoga or classical Indian dance and hold them so rigidly as she slowly spins. The climax of the act , however, is spinning so rapidly that all features of her face and clothing become a blur. It is an act both beautiful and freakish as the same time. Hair is attached to the scalp but the scalp is not firmly attached to the skull, so one hesitates to think how saggy the scalp must become after years of such suspensions.
Further acts are spoiled only by Alexandre’s mistaken belief that LED screen’s will enhance the effect. Joey Arrigo, who plays WAZ, is primarily a dancer and Alexandre gives him a full-fledged modern dance solo near the end of Volta to express the joy of his his new-found freedom and self-acceptance. Julie Perron’s choreography has Arrigo cover the entire stage with leaps, tumbles and arabesques. His dancing should be arresting in itself but Alexandre has the two LED screens hyperactively scroll through reams of images so that it is hard to concentrate on the dance.
Even in the grand finale in which Bruce Rodgers turns turns the stage into a giant skate park with six transparent polycarbonate ramps to allow the audience at ground level to see the action, Alexandre can’t prevent himself from using the screens to to create explosions and fireworks when the five bicycle motocross (BMX) bikers complete their flairs, tail whips or 720s. Why taint an act with overkill when it is exciting enough to watch on stage as it is?
Of course, you don’t have to go to the circus to see BMX. The main difference in Volta is to see BMX acts performed simultaneously in a tightly choreographed fashion. Other than this finale, however, Volta as an entertainment is too slow to start, does not tell its story engagingly and does not show enough respect for the talented artists of the circus acts to present their work without distractions. Since Cirque du Soleil produces so many shows per year now, Volta is one even Cirque lovers can safely skip as they wait for a better one to come along.
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes, including intermission.
Tour stops completed after Toronto, ON:
• Big Top next to Hard Rock Stadium, Miami, FL
December 15, 2017-February 4, 2018;
• Tampa Greyhound Track, Tampa, FL
February 14-March 4, 2018;
• Meadowlands Racing & Entertainment, East Rutherford, NJ
March 29-April 22, 2018;
• Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, NY
May 17-June 10, 2018;
• Greater Philadelphia Expo Center, Oaks, PA
July 12-August 5, 2018
• Big Top King County’s Marymoor Park, Seattle, WA
September 14-November 4, 2018
Tour stops after San Francisco, CA:
• Big Top in Santa Clara County Fairgrounds, San Jose, CA
February 14-March 10, 2019
Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.
Photos: (from top) The Free Spirits; Joey Arrigo as WAZ; Pawel Walczewski as the Younger WAZ; Wayne Wilson as Shood Kood Wood. © 2017 Cirque du Soleil.
For tickets, visit www.cirquedusoleil.com.