Leaving the Inferno Behind

Cirque du Soleil's Alegria is kinder, gentler

The problem with having an extraordinary, tremendous, sensational experience is that afterwards, a merely excellent time seems lackluster.

A year and two months ago, I saw Quidam by Cirque du Soleil, and I ran out of superlatives trying to describe it. The experience wasn't in every way conventionally pleasing; it was, in fact, overwhelming, assaulting the senses with often demonic-seeming energies, bizarre performers, and acts of improbable skill that seemed as macabre as they were marvelous. In my review of the show, I used the term "hallucinogenic," and in retrospect, I think that was right: the experience was like a waking dream or, sometimes, nightmare, as if one had fallen into the collective unconscious, there to discover a Carnival from Hell. I had never seen anything remotely like it and I was about as impressed as I've ever been by any spectacle.

Well, now Cirque du Soleil is back with a different show, Alegria, and I'm relieved — and a little disappointed — to announce that this show is merely splendid.

Gone are most of the ghoulish characters from Quidam, gone are the Headless Spook, the sinister Man in a Wheel, the four Automaton Spool Spinners, the Writhing Veil Woman descending from the ceiling. In their places — with a few exceptions — are figures of light, of strange beauty, who seem to want to entertain (and not terrify) us. Yes, Dominique Lemieux's costumes are wonderfully original as before, and the athletic feats breathtaking and astonishing. But Alegria comes across as a circus, of all things, as a series of acts designed mostly to give us pleasure. After Quidam, the experience feels almost quotidian.

What will you see at Alegria? Well, there's a daring trapeze artist, throwing himself up into the stratosphere to do somersaults and twists. There's a group of trampolinists, who run across crisscrossing trampoline-runways, soaring high into the air sometimes in unison, sometimes in (beautiful) counterpoint. There's Denys Tolstov, the Hand Balancer, who, grasping a wooden block atop a pole, supports his whole weight on a single hand, and Karl Sanft, who weaves torches (burning on each end) around his body at incredible speeds. There's Maria Silaeva, who performs astonishing contortions while keeping five silver hoops revolving around her body. And there are the acrobatic flyers who, propelled from distressingly narrow flexible bars, perform multiple synchronized somersaults and mid-air twists. The show ends with contortionist Ulziibayar Chimed arranging her body into impossible shapes, followed by a spectacular group aerial act, taking place 40 feet up. These performances are punctuated by clowning — some funny, some uninspired — and are backed by live music, sometimes driving, sometimes sinuous. There's also singing on occasion by the prodigiously talented Isabel Corradi, and dancing by anyone and everyone choreographed by Debra Brown. Michel Crête's expansive set is rather abstract, without personality; but it's usefully changeable, depending on the nature of each act.

And there are a few grotesqueries redolent of Quidam. There's the hunchbacked master of ceremonies, in a red coat and black hat, and strange chicken-like clowns with white beaks and weird costumes. But whereas figures like these managed to dominate last year's show, this year they're just odd distractions from a series of more or less conventional acts. There's virtue in this too; I wouldn't have recommended Quidam to small children, but Alegria is friendly enough for anyone, adult or child, who can appreciate dazzling feats of athletic and gymnastic prowess. All right, this year's show doesn't come across like State Fair at the Inferno. But, just like Quidam, it still elicits simple awe.

Because even at its most "normal," Cirque du Soleil is marvelous.

So Who's Perfect? The challenge that any theater company faces is to find important, satisfying plays among the sea of plays that make up the Samuel French and Dramatists Play Service catalogs. And when a company chooses to produce only a certain category of drama, the pickings, naturally, become slimmer. How many great plays are there, after all, on women's liberation or postmodernism or the Hispanic experience? It's difficult enough to find a gem under any circumstances; to find one of just the right hue, shape and, most important, value, is an exceedingly daunting task.

Well, that's the task that artistic director Trevor Keller has set for himself with Gypsy Productions, the relatively new outfit devoted mostly to gay-themed dramas. The fact is that winners like Angels in America, Love! Valour! Compassion! and Jeffrey don't turn up every day, and still you've got to fill every slot in the season. So the result is a play like A Perfect Relationship, Gypsy's latest offering at the Suncoast Theater in St. Petersburg.

This is a pallid, forgettable sitcom which asks us to care whether accounting teacher Ward (Keller) will ever fall in love with his platonic roommate, travel agent Greg (Heath Jorgenson), or whether instead one of them will set up housekeeping with leather-lover Barry (Eric Williams). Author Doric Wilson's dialogue is only mildly interesting, the acting (which also includes René Bray as apartment-sublessor Muriel and Donald W. Roeseke Jr. as three of her lovers) is universally unimpressive, the running jokes aren't very funny, and the show's pacing is uneven. There are a few moments when the play shows some sparks of life: Ward's mythomania occasionally threatens to turn into something original, and there's a straight character whose stereotyped notions about gays might (in a more interesting play) lead to a significant confrontation. But these opportunities are thrown away, and we're left with the unintriguing question, who will end up with whom? The answer: what's the diff? The fate of trivial characters feels trivial.

There are, fortunately, a few virtues to the production. The costumes, credited to "The Emporium and the Cast," are just fine, and Roeseke's set of a messy Christopher Street living room is a real success. But it's not enough. Second-rate plays on any theme tend to produce second-rate experiences. And without acting to redeem it, this script's failings are all too obvious.

In sum: this Relationship can't be saved.

And it was never, ever anywhere near perfect.

Performance Critic Mark E. Leib can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888 ext. 305.

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