Stage Door Review

Las Vegas, NV: O

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

✭✭✭✭✩

written and directed by Franco Dragone

Cirque du Soleil, Hotel Bellagio, Las Vegas, NV

October 19, 1998-open ended run

Of the seven resident Cirque du Soleil shows currently running in Las Vegas at the time of writing, ‘O’ is the second one after that should be on everyone’s must-see list. If Cirque du Soleil shows have tended organize their various circus acts either by theme or by narrative, is without doubt the acme of the narrative mode. ‘O’ comes very close to being the acme of the thematic mode, but does not make as thorough-going use of its spectacular concept as it could. Nevertheless, the concept is so unusual and the staging is so consistently beautiful that it will likely wow audiences more than any other thematic Cirque du Soleil offering.

‘O’ premiered in 1998 and became, after Mystère (1996), Cirque’s second resident show in Las Vegas. It is still going strong. It reached its 6000th performance on May 22 last year. Entrepreneur Steve Wynn wanted a resident show for his new Bellagio Hotel, whose musical fountains have become one of the standard tour sights of Las Vegas. Appropriately for the venue, the theme of ‘O’ is water. The name represents not just the pronunciation of the French word for water, “eau”, but an expression of surprise and, as it happens, the shape of the circular pool that serves as a stage. As with , ‘O’ takes place on a purpose-built stage in a purpose-built theatre and represents a pioneering effort in stage mechanics.   

The primary source of inspiration for the design of the auditorium and for the costumes is Venice, a city inextricable linked in people’s mind with water. The 1800-seat auditorium is built to look like the interior of an ornate Baroque opera house surmounted by a huge oval watery blue dome that suggests that the theatre itself is submerged. Dominique Lemieux’s costumes, particularly for those not engaged in acrobatics, reflect 18th-century Venetian courtly dress, the masks of the commedia dell’arte and the exuberance of invention and colour of Venice’s famed Carnival.

The theatre has a proscenium but the centre of the stage consists of an elliptical 1.5 million-gallon pool--150 feet in length, 100 feet in width and 25 feet deep--with water access upstage via two canals. It is exciting enough to see as stage with such large built-in pool, but what is even more amazing are the four stage lifts inside the pool that can move from 17 feet below the surface to 18 inches above it, either separately or together in various configurations. Drilled with thousands of holes for rapid movement, the stage can, within seconds, change from a pool to a solid surface. Especially magical are the times when the lifts stop just below the surface so that performers crossing the stage look as if they are walking on water.

‘O’ was written and directed by Franco Dragone, whose previous show for Cirque was Quidam (1996). The main technical innovation in Quidam was the use of the téléphérique, basically a track where an object is moved from point to point via a central haulage cable. Quidam used a set of five arched téléphériques to lift performers off the stage and transport them backstage or vice versa. ‘O’ takes this farther with one set of four from side to side two from front to back that in turn support a téléphérique in the form of a circle known as the “carousel”. This means that performers moving up and down in a circle can be transported while in motion from the back to the front. This system is used to create the central image of the show--an 18th-century carousel with riders on wooden horses, all moving up and down that glides forward from the distance and, when just over the pool, lowers the riders into it on their horses which then float offstage via the canals.

The show begins while the audience waits for the brilliant scarlet curtains to open. Two clowns (Terry Bartlett, the tall one, and Valery Keft, the short one) attempt to wheel a huge lifebuoy from the stage up the stairs of the aisle into the auditorium. Their trials are similar to those of Laurel and Hardy pushing a piano up stairs in the classic film The Music Box (1932). At the cross aisle they meet characters who will appear at various times throughout the show. These are the Comets, men who look like royal servants with white faces and wigs and long red coats; a kind of strongman known as the Barrel Organ Grinder (Vladimir Zibrov); and the woman Aurora (Isabelle Thomas), who puts an elaborate courtly gown over her simple slip. Another character known as Le Vieux (Benedikt Negro) functions as a kind of grumpy master of ceremonies. He chooses a young man from the audience (Jorge Castano, planted there for the purpose) whom he invites onstage. He gives him a piece of red cloth which he meant to give to one of the characters. The young man is suddenly pulled between the curtains which in a marvellous technical feat are suddenly whisked far off into the distance revealing a surreal landscape and the pool where a team of 17 synchronized swimmers are actively engaged in an aquacade.

When the young man appears again his is in Sicilian costume and (as the notes tell us) is named Guifà. This is one of Dragone’s signature devices. From the symbolic Everyman in La Nouvelle Expérience (1990) to the bored Zoé in Quidam, Dragone has a character on stage stage who represents the ordinary person caught up in the magical world of the circus and transformed by it. In Quidam Dragone used each of the circus acts as a means of depicting why Zoé and her family had become alienated from life and each other and as a means of reconciling them. In contrast, Dragone makes no such attempt with Guifà. Guifà and his quest to find the person to give the red cloth to suggests merely the hint of a narrative and the circus acts have nothing to do with him or his quest. As a result, ‘O’, while visually dazzling, lacks the psychological depth of Quidam and has none of the narrative excitement of .

What Dragone gives us instead is a series of one set of gorgeous stage images followed by another, all heavily influenced by the surrealism of Magritte and Dalì and the films of Fellini. As one might expect the circus acts that have the greatest effect are the ones that make the greatest use of the pool. In ascending order, the first of these is the act called the “Barge”. A white barge floats into the pool via one of the canals carrying eight female acrobats. They combine energetic gymnastic performances with banquine and adagio with the twist that the fliers, instead of landing on the barge or being caught by other acrobats, joyfully plunge into the pool. The scariest of the acts is undoubtedly the High Dive in Act 2. This is basically an indoor version of the cliff diving one has seen in places like Acapulco. Here four world-class high divers leap from 60 feet above the ground into the front fourth of the pool, the lifts of other three-fourths having formed a solid surface. The circus act that really captures both the surreal style of ‘O’ and the theme of water is the “Bateau”. This is an apparatus especially constructed for ‘O’ that looks like the steel frame of a ship but combines both parallel bars and a device known as the aerial cradle. It sails in in mid air via the téléphérique to stop above the pool where the eleven performers aboard engage in parallel bar displays that segue into use of the fixed trapezes at each end of the structure, with flyers sometimes being tossed between the catchers at either end.

Of all the acts, my favourite was the Russian Swing. This apparatus is like a normal swing except much larger with the seat turned 90˚ into a plank held not by chains but metal poles. The object in the Russian Swing is to have two or three people stand on one end of the plank to do the pumping while one person stands on the end facing the landing area, here the pool, and is propelled by the pumping to heights of over 30 feet above the surface where he executes the twists, turns and jackknives one sees in high dives before entering the water. It is fantastic enough to see one Russian Swing in operation, but at the height of this extraordinary sequence, there are three operating all at once--one behind the pool and one on either side. Nothing else in ‘O’ matches this cascade of bodies in flight and their dives for sheer exhilaration and panache.

The rest of the acts can be divided into those that merely use the pool as substitute for a net and those that have nothing to do with the theme of water. In the first group are the various aerial acts that occurs throughout the show, beginning with impressive duo trapeze act of twins Alifia and Zulfia Alimova, who share a single trapeze and suspend each other in ways you would not have thought possible. Then there are the aerial hoops and the “Cadre”, one of the least effective acts I’ve seen at a Cirque show. Here the Bateau team, now called Zebras because of there costumes, clamber about a rectangular metal structure not unlike a jungle gym divided into 15 squares. The main interest is that the act takes place during a downpour of onstage rain. Of the aerial acts the most effective was the Washington Trapeze. The trapeze with Anja Christa Wyttenbach on it is attached to the carousel and moved into place via the front-to-back téléphériques. Unlike a normal trapeze Wyttenbach balances on it on her head, moving her limbs into various configuration while still swing back and forth. The carousel gives the trapeze an added twist--literally--by keeping it in motion in a circle meaning that Wyttenbach has the added difficulty of compensation for torque while balanced upside down.

What makes ‘O’ fairly puzzling in relation to other Cirque shows is the number of acts that have nothing to do with amazing pool/stage or the theme. The greatest outlier here is the character called “Le Travesti” (Robert Knowles). Costumed in a French corset with a scoop neck low enough to reveal his pecs and abs, Knowles performs a wild acrobatic dance on a raised fourth of the stage that suggests that the male and female sides of himself are at war. What this has to do with water or Guifà’s quest for Aurora is a mystery. Another act that really does not fit in are the four synchronized contortionists. They arrive by air and leave by boat and happen to perform their act on an island in the pool, but what they do does not connect with anything else in imagery or style. Then there are the performers (Fua’au Faitau and Karl Sanft) who juggles flaming torches. At least he is related to the theme through the opposition of fire and water. His juggling happens to set another character called “L’Allumé” (Ray Wold) on fire, who continues to sit and read his newspaper as if nothing were amiss.

The clowns appear once in each act. In the first act they appear on the roof of a small partially submerged floating house. With a bed and W.C. on the one level side of the roof, it seems they have been living this way for some time. Just when the habit of the short one (Valery Keft) of repeating the same phrase becomes boring the roof springs a leak and the efforts of the two to stop it are quite amusing. Strangely, though, Dragone does not use the technology of the lifts to make the house sink, which would bring the scene more in line with famous silent film comedies like Buster Keaton’s The Navigator (1924). In the second act the house actually moors alongside the proscenium edge of the pool. Keft is in the mood to dance and tries to get the tall one (Terry Bartlett) to join in. Eventually, they dance together and sail off across the pool and down a canal, arms affectionately across each other’s back.

Except for the leak, the clown act during the show has little to do with the theme. But then Dragone seems primarily concerned with creating pretty pictures than with a serious enquiry. At one point Le Vieux sails across the pool on an upside-down umbrella. At another he, for unknown reasons, he removes his old man hair and protheses to become a young man and plays a transparent piano on which Aurora reclines. The piano sails out into the pool and gradually submerges--beautiful, but meaning what? The show has somehow rejuvenated him, but we really don’t care how or why. During the second act we finally learn why Dragone has named the red-clad valets “Comets”. Positioned in the aisles in the audience, they suddenly shoot off into the air just like Superman, whisked off by the aerial silks they’re holding by the téléphériques at high speed. Dragone sometimes doesn’t know when to stop in creating his stage pictures. Sometimes he has action occurring downstage on “land” and upstage in the air while an act is going on. This may create visual balance, but it can also be distracting.

After many pointless delays, Guifà does give his red strip of cloth to Aurora, but we’ve never been engaged in his quest. If you go to ‘O’ hoping for the same psychological insight Dragone showed in Quidam, you may be disappointed. If you go simply to see a spectacular, consistently beautiful show with a fantastic technical premise, you’ll have a great time. I would probably see ‘O’ again just to experience the freedom and fun embodied in the Russian Swing sequence, where ‘O’ definitely changes to ‘Wow!’

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photo: (top) The Carousel. ©1998 Tomasz Rossa; (middle) The Bateau. © 1998 Veronique Vial.

For tickets, visit: www.cirquedusoleil.com.