Cirque du Soleil's "Mystere": It's No Wonder

It’s no wonder that Cirque du Soleil’s “Mystere” has been running since 1993 to packed houses in the Treasure Island Hotel in Las Vegas. It’s unquestionably the fastest ninety minutes this reviewer has ever spent in a theater, with not a single wasted moment to slow the incredibly rapidly paced flow from one breath-defying act to another. One loses count of all the acrobatic feats of fancy, with not so much as a glance at one’s watch, as the inadequate adjectives strive to tumble out almost as non-stop as these awe-inspiring athletes. It’s hard to imagine that any other show, even one of the two dozen Cirque du Soleil productions playing all over the world, could possibly match these displays of strength, coordination and grace.

There are a seemingly endless procession of versatile aerial cubists, an amazing woman (Ginger Ana Griep-Ruiz) suspended in mid-air supported by only cloth, gravity-denying pole climbers, hand-to hand balancers, fearless human bungees on trampolines and courageous men and women on flying trapezes. There’s humor, too, none of it forced or farcical, especially from comic Brian le Petit, with some elements incorporating good natured cooperation from willing audience members, all of it harmless good fun. There are cast members playing a precocious baby, birds, black widows, lizards, “spermatos” and “spermatites”, a trouble-making clown, and a ventriloquist narrator. In short, it’s “Cirque du Soleil” as one has come to expect, but at a level that would be hard to beat.

Cirque du Soleil Founder Guy Laliberte has aptly described it as the “flower in the desert”, the creation of an ingenious group headed by Director Franco Dragone, who has helmed no fewer than ten Cirque du Soleil shows over the past twenty-five years or so. Gilles Ste.-Croix is credited as Director of Creation, and each of the creative team stands out with her or his contributions, including choreography (Debra Brown), sets (Michel Crete), costumes (Dominique Lemieux), music (Benoit Jutras and Rene Dupere), lighting (Luc Lafortune) and sound (Jonathan Deans). There’s not a single element that mars the nearly flawless whole.

It’s no mystery why “Mistere” has established itself as a virtually permanent resident of the Las Vegas scene. The sole mystery, if you’ve been to Las Vegas and haven’t seen it yet, is why not. It’s what Las Vegas and entertainment in general are all about. “Mystere” will overcome any hesitation you might have about this kind of theatrical wonder. It’s energy will wipe out such reservations. What happens in Vegas, slays in Vegas.



Cirque du Soleil's "IRIS": Eye-Opening

If you like movies, and especially if you love movies, then this is the Cirque du Soleil for you. Let’s start with the venue: “IRIS” is not playing now at a theater near you, but in the magnificently appropriate Dolby (formerly Kodak) Theater in Los Angeles, the current and future home to the annual Academy Awards presentations. There is history there, with its ghostly vibes of movie stars from the golden age of the silver screen. What the folks at Cirque du Soleil have put together is subtitled “A Journey through the World of Cinema”, and it is decidedly that.

This is a journey unique to the Cirque du Soleil brand, in that it depicts more of a central narrative in a specific locale, namely Hollywood. The storytelling revolves around two young protagonists, Buster and Scarlett (any cinematic homage is purely intentional), as they break into the movie business, encountering all sorts of familiar images and experiences, while also demonstrating the eye-opening magic that only live theater can bring. Ironically, while on the surface celebrating iconic moments in film history, this show overwhelms with its equally exciting visual theatrical wonders.

The creative team behind this production is led by the extraordinarily imaginative Writer/Director Philippe Decoufle, who established the dance company DCA three decades ago. There are a host of other contributors to this multi-ringed circus. A cast of seventy-two (though it seemed at times like ten times that number) performs astounding acrobatic feats, painfully realistic recreations of vaudeville routines (sources for many an early film), and superbly executed mime and dance movement. Choreographer Daphne Mauger stands out in the group of contributors, including acrobatic performance designers and technical staff. While the elaborate sets, props, sound design, lighting and wondrous costumes (five hundred, count them, five hundred) can overwhelm, it’s the balletic grace on view that keeps this show on its toes. Add to this the bountiful orchestral score by Danny Elfman (himself no stranger to movies and Academy Awards), including an introduction sounding suspiciously like Jack Skellington of “Nightmare Before Christmas”.

The sole complaint one might make about this show is that there is always more going on that meets the eye, or rather, one pair of eyes. Whether you’re being entranced by an eight-man acrobatic team (who don’t so much defy gravity as redefine it), a three-woman group of marvelous contortionists, or several high-flying acts even “Spiderman” couldn’t match, there are many potential diversions elsewhere on stage, in the aisles and in the wings. While this is hardly unusual for Cirque du Soleil, it can be a bit exhausting, most challenging if you’re a true movie buff. If you keep that one pair of eyes attentive, you’ll catch references and images of some of the most iconic cinematic moments, from earliest silent films (such as Melies’ “A Trip to the Moon”) to gladiator epics, loin-clothed jungle heroes, and even the MGM lion. (No spoiler here, but this one will have you off to a roaring start.

“IRIS” promises to become a permanent fixture on the Hollywood bucket list of serious filmgoers, theatrical devotees, and circus enthusiasts. If you’re a fan of all three, then this is the smorgasbord made for you, should you be traveling to Los Angeles in the future. The finale, “Film Noir”, in which the best is saved for the last reel, will send you out of the theater with the saddest words of all time: “The End”.


SpeakEasy's "Motherf**ker with the Hat": A Pain in the Asterisk

SpeakEasy Stage Company’s first production of the season, playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “Motherf**ker with the Hat”, presents not a few challenges. Giurgis, who has a history of challenging work (“Jesus Hopped the A Train”, “Our Lady of 121st Street”, “Last Days of Judas Iscariot”) has at last found a secular, if unprintable, title. A Tony nominee for Best Play of 2011, it’s the first in a very promising year of SpeakEasy regional premieres, including two nominees for Best Play of 2012, “Other Desert Cities” and “Clybourne Park”, (the latter being the eventual Tony as well as Pulitzer winner). “Motherf**ker” is a short, nine scene five-hander about the discovery of that hat, the suspicions it arouses, and the effects of its mysterious appearance on the extremely dysfunctional characters in this small interrelated group.

Jackie (Jaime Carrillo), the main character, a parolee with a history of using and dealing, discovers the unexplained hat after he arrives home as his partner Veronica (his girlfriend since childhood) is about to take a shower. Veronica herself (Evelyn Howe) is a current drug addict. Jackie’s sponsor in a 12-step program, Ralph D. (Maurice Emmanuel Parent), is a former addict who has his own issues with his shrewish wife Victoria (Melinda Lopez). The fifth wheel of the group is Jackie’s Cousin Julio (Alejandro Simoes). All of them are former or current users and abusers of drugs, alcohol, sex and/or people. As directed by David R. Gammons, they perform a complicatedly choreographed series of exercises in various permutations and combinations, enabling each of them to have a chance to reveal just how much of a pain in the asterisk each of she or he is.

The cast handles the difficult task of presenting basically unpleasant people, trapped in their constricting roles, with varying degrees of humanity. Simoes, in the showiest role with most of the funniest lines, conveys the complex pansexual straight man with excellent timing. Carrillo, Lopez and Howe all come in to their own in the final scenes of the play. Maurice Emmanuel Parent is excellent in the unsympathetic role of the expert sponsor with extraordinary baggage. All do very well under the capable direction of David R. Gammons. The problem is, despite several hilarious lines here and there, we never get to know (or care) about any of the characters as Giurgis has written them. He certainly seems to have captured the speech and the mannerisms of his inner city troupe for whom we might feel empathy but little else.

Giurgis has stated that one of the points he wanted to make is that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference, and these people are certainly not indifferent to one another. Jackie claims that “nobody knows nobody”. Ralph D. advises his sponsee Jackie to “stop making lists and start living the damn list”. Victoria describes Ralph D. as having a “PhD in manipulation and self-loathing”. Cousin Julio admits to Jackie that he doesn’t “like (him) very much, you’re a loser”. Veronica feels her relationship with Jackie is “broke” and cannot be fixed. And Ralph D.’s view of relationships is that “anyone you meet before the age of 25... that’s your friend; anyone after that, that’s just an associate, someone to pass the time”. Later in the play, Ralph D. also says “sometimes the truth is ugly”.

The sole saving reality beneath all this vitriol is, as Jackie puts it, “It’s funny how people can be more than one thing”. Despite the mistrust, the pervasive addictions and the impoverishment that surrounds them, there may still be love. The fundamental problem they all share is their inability to articulate it. There are a good number of malicious barbs thrown about, some of them incisive and effective, others bordering on sitcom (albeit X-rated), that manage to amuse and engage us.

What isn’t engaging is the very predictable revelation of just whose hat that was and what that ownership signifies. The revelation we are expected to experience doesn’t come as a surprise, spoiling the intended payoff and exposing the plot’s basic flaw. What we have here is almost two hours of verbal pyrotechnics about, paradoxically, the failure to communicate. In the end, the play is a whole lot less than the sum of its parts; the characters haven’t grown much, and we haven’t learned much. A lot of talent and attention have finally pretty much signified nothing, to which the only logical comment is (bleep)!


New Rep's "Kite Runner": A Way to Be Good Again

Once in a great while, there comes a moment in a darkened theater when one suddenly becomes aware of the thunderous silence that occurs as an audience holds its collective breath. It’s then that we remember just how uniquely exciting and involving live theater can be. During New Rep’s opening production of “The Kite Runner”, masterfully adapted by playwright Matthew Spangler from the much-loved 2003 novel by Khaled Hosseini, there were many such moments during which you could quite literally have heard the proverbial pin drop. This iteration of the story of two Afghan boyhood “friends”, in its New England premiere, reminds us of why we love theater.

As readers of the book and viewers of the film version will recall, this is the story of two boys (a servant and his master’s son, thus not truly friends) living in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1973 and what happens to them over the course of three decades. As with most creative storytelling, it is about many things that matter, and the consequences of the choices we all make. Primarily, “The Kite Runner” is about theft, its subsequent repercussions, and opportunities for redemption. Early in the first act of the play, the master of the house, Baba, tells his son Amir that theft is the one unforgivable sin. What is left unsaid, but will soon after be made clear to Amir as he matures, is that theft may take many forms: property, reputation, innocence, and the betrayal of love. Fortunately for theatergoers, there is also a chance to make amends, in the words of another servant, “a way to be good again”.

What this play proves is that, in the theater, there is a way to be great again. Tackling an adaptation of any literary source is fraught with pitfalls. Many a theater piece based on previously written material ends up overly episodic, and often succumbs to the temptation to have the play narrated by a character in order to make theatrical coherence out of an overabundance of plots and players. Miraculously, “The Kite Runner” in its present form, while full of flashbacks and narrated by the adult Amir, manages not only to stay fresh and involving but also intelligent and intelligible.

As impeccably directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue, with an excellent cast and crew, most of whom are making their New Rep debuts, this is a stunning start to a promising season. The entire ensemble is terrific, including Nael Nacer (so memorable in last season’s “The Temperamentals” at Lyric Stage Company) as the adult Amir, Fahim Hamid as his younger self, Ken Baltin as his father, and Luke Murtha as the young servant Hassan and in another pivotal role near the end of the play. Nacer’s performance, especially energetic and mesmerizing, is surely one for the ages. Technical credits were flawless, from the atmospheric Scenic Design by Paul Tate dePoo III to the eerie Lighting Design by Mary Ellen Stebbins to the authentic Costume Design by Adrienne Carlile and the chilling Sound Design by David Reiffel. There is even a credit, very appropriately, for the amazingly realistic Violence Design by Robert Najarian.

In the words of the young servant Hassan, repeated thirty years later by the adult Amir, if great theater is your passion, then this is “for you, a thousand times over”.


Lyric Stage's "Mikado": Modified Rapture

It‘s easy to see why Gilbert and Sullivan‘s “The Mikado, or the Town of Titipu”, written over a century and a quarter ago, is one of the most performed works of theater throughout the world. The ninth of their fourteen operettas, their tale of the transparently ridiculous residents of the mythical Japanese town is of course not about Japan in any literal sense, but a satire of British politics, and by extension politicians everywhere. A large part of its enduring popularity is precisely that universality, making it appropriate as Lyric Stage Company’s first production of its current season in an election year. What may or may not be appropriate, depending on how much of a purist you are, is the choice to pepper the subtle yet sublimely incisive humor of Gilbert’s libretto with frequent contemporary political references.

Tinkering with some of the lyrics of the musical numbers is accepted tradition, begun by none other than Gilbert himself a decade or so after its first performance, most notably in the memorable “I’ve Got a Little List”. Just how successful this sort of thing becomes depends on how seamless the current inclusions are; in this version, some are, but too many are not. Gilbert was, after all, a master of meiosis, dramatic understatement, the revelation of just how clueless his characters are. Thus lines about Wisconsin and venture capitalists, not to mention awkwardly inserted expressions like “wait for it”, fell embarrassingly flat with the opening night audience, while Gilbert’s lines, although familiar to many, were met with hearty laughter, such as the hero’s exclamation of “modified rapture” and the heroine’s declaration that she sits and wonders “in my artless Japanese way, why it is that I am so much more attractive than anybody else in the whole world”. Now there’s a skewering of virtually every politician, female and male, that surely needs no embellishment.

The success of any Gilbert and Sullivan production also depends on the extraordinary demands on the cast, requiring them to be practically perfect in pitch, diction and timing. Happily, in almost every case, this cast has that all nailed. Davron S. Monroe (the hero Nanki-Poo), Erica Spyres (the heroine Yum-Yum), Leigh Barrett (the battleship Katishah), Rishi Basu (the noble lord Pish-Tush), and Teresa Winner Blume and Stephanie Granade (Yum-Yum’s sisters Pitti-Sing and Peep-Bo) are all terrific, especially when in chorus with the rest of the ensemble. At the performance seen, unfortunately Bob Jolly (Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner) seemed to be significantly indisposed, upsetting both his timing and pitch, and Timothy John Smith (The Mikado) seemed to be performing in another production altogether, certainly capable but much broader than the rest of the company. Last but surely not least on this little list is David Kravitz (Pooh-Bah, the Lord High Everything Else) who was particularly winning in both his singing and acting.

The overall direction by Producing Artistic Director Spiro Veloudos was on a par with his many memorable musicals, such as last season’s triumphant closer, “Avenue Q”. The Scenic Design by Janie Howland was perhaps the most beautiful and sensible set seen in many a season hereabouts. Most of the costumes by Rafael Jaen were well done (though two of the women in the cast were somewhat upstaged by their wigs) and the lighting by Karen Perlow was very effective. Thankfully, Sullivan’s music survived intact under the Musical Direction of Jonathan Goldberg, even with the limitations of an orchestra of five.

This is a grand start to a very promising season, whatever one’s view of modernizing a classic. This reviewer has seen many productions of this work over the years that qualified as mortified rupture, so it’s a pleasure to see so much of “The Mikado” so wonderfully (you should excuse the expression) executed. As for that tinkering with Sullivan’s libretto, well, let the punishment fit the rhyme.