Divine Madness

Quidam goes beyond hallucinatory to downright deranged

Once, I was a tourist in Florence, Italy. Not being prepared for the surfeit of great art in the city, I tried to see everything, and eventually fell victim to Great Art Overload. I distinctly remember when I first noticed the condition. I was in the umpteenth museum, staring at a complicated Botticelli, and it occurred to me that I had no idea what I was seeing. I'd enjoyed one too many paintings, I'd witnessed magnificence once too often, and in front of this latest masterpiece I could feel nothing, absorb nothing. That's when I learned that it was possible to be overstimulated, even by splendid art. That's when I first learned the aesthetic meaning of "too much of a good thing."And that's very much what I felt in Act Two of Quidam, the Cirque du Soleil show now playing under the "grand chapiteau" in the Tropicana Field parking lot. To get directly to the matter, this is an astonishing, extraordinary show, unlike anything else I've ever witnessed, and still haunting, days later, as I write these words. It's also almost too much. I watched, in Act Two, as a nearly naked man and woman performed the most amazing slow-motion balancing feats, and again I had the feeling that I'd seen too many wonders, experienced too many sensations, and had no more awe left to dispense to these worthy artists.

Quidam happens to be a hallucinogenic experience, and by Act Two you've had just about enough of the drug; you have no more need to witness the grotesque and the masterful, the dreamlike and the demonic, the fantastical and the frightening.

Quidam is overwhelming.

Think of Quidam as part theater, part dance, part Olympics and part Ripley's Believe it or Not. The ultimate effect is a product of several factors at once: the loud, intense music (performed by a six-person band), the bizarre costumes, the strange props and the mind-boggling physical prowess of one weird performer after the next. The show begins with a young girl playing innocently while her father and mother sit nearby reading. The young girl stands up, opens a door; and through it comes a headless man with an umbrella. He leaves his hat behind him, the young girl puts it on — and her parents, in their chairs, rise through the air to the ceiling while a group of strange figures all in white emerge on stage.

Now the really strange acts begin, presided over by a silent, sinister clown named John, and featuring some of the most inhuman-looking humans this size of Oz. A man in a wheel rolls dangerously around the stage, and smiles ghoulishly as he performs more and more difficult gyrations. Four young Chinese girls, wearing funnels for hats, beam spookily like automatons as they toss oversize spools from one to another in between demanding acrobatics. A woman in the air writhes within long red banners that hang from the ceiling almost to the floor. A jump-rope routine goes wild, with 20 acrobats getting more and more involved in an increasingly daunting series of jumps and figures.

We meet, again and again, several nightmarish figures whose willingness to entertain us seems eerily combined with the desire to shock, to disorient, to dismay. There's John, the master of ceremonies, who with his bizarre clump of hair near the top of his head, his imperturbable features and his strange sense of propriety, might be a lovable clown or a messenger from hell. There's a male clown in a tutu who speaks gibberish and seems determined to embarrass the audience, and there are the strange figures in white who appear like shapes in a science fiction movie, protected by their masks from the perilous air.

Add the music, alternately driving and creepy, the tracks along the ceiling, bearing who-knows-what strange characters, and the various trap doors from which anyone can emerge, and you've got an experience that seems to hail from that part of the unconscious where sanity and insanity collide. I said that the experience was hallucinogenic, but I wonder if a better parallel is schizophrenia.

Judge for yourself. This is a startling entertainment, hardly believable even as you watch it, motivated by energies that are almost impossible to define.

I've never seen anything faintly resembling Quidam.

Head of StageAmerican Stage has selected a new artistic director.

For the last three years, Todd Olson has been associate artistic director/director of education at the Tennessee Repertory Theatre in Nashville. TRT is the largest theater in Tennessee with an annual budget of more than $3-million. Olson's duties there have included leading and assisting in all aspects of running the theater.

Olson is also an actor, director and playwright. He's won awards for acting and directing, and the play My Way, which he co-created, will be the eighth most produced play in the nation this year, according to American Theatre magazine. The play is based on the life and songs of Frank Sinatra.

I spoke to Olson by phone recently, and asked him about his vision for American Stage. "In some ways the vision is already in place," he said. "I really admire their mission statement; I admire their goals of innovative and bold programming ... theater that's engaging. It's pretty clear that they need to satisfy several different kinds of audiences down there. So I think in some ways that the blueprint is sort of laid out for me."

He adds that some of the plays he's considering for next year's lineup are Moises Kaufman's Laramie Project, David Sedaris' Santaland Diaries and Marie Jones' Stones in His Pockets.

In other news from American Stage: Romeo and Juliet has been named as the Shakespeare in the Park entry for next spring. According to managing director Lee Manwaring Lowry, this won't be a musicalized adaptation; it'll be straight Shakespeare, the first unadapted Shakespeare in the Park since 1988.

The balcony scene played outdoors: it makes a certain kind of sense ...

Contact Mark E. Leib at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 305.

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