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“Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is a part of an Englishman’s constitution. His thoughts and beauties are so spread abroad that one touches them every where, one is intimate with him by instinct.”
– Jane Austen, Mansfield Park
I’ll be honest with you, dear reader: I knew nothing about this show going in. It’s very rare that I’ll do any extensive research before I see any show or film. I want to go in with as fresh a slate as possible – no interviews, no director’s statements, no behind-the-scenes photos, et. al. If it’s a work I already know, I still tread lightly so as to be surprised by whatever new bells ‘n whistles were added to its latest incarnation. I’ve found that this has served me well as a professional critic.
The perk of that professional distinction is that troupes and production companies let you see their shows for free, provided you actually write about them. So, when I realized I had the chance to see my first-ever Cirque du Soleil show, my thoughts were less “What’s the show about?” and more “Finally!”. The show is just as world-renowned for its high-priced tickets as it is for its jaw-dropping performances, so there was no way I was gonna pass up this of all comps. Imagine my further surprise to find out that opening night comes with a variety of freebies: free glasses of wine; free champagne; free five-star macarons (because French); free popcorn; free red clown noses. So much great stuff was free that it was a shock when I actually did have to pay for something.
What has any of this to do with the show proper? Nothing at all, it’s just really cool.
As for the show itself, there’s a reason I chose the quote above. Knowing nothing about the show’s story, you can imagine how taken aback I was when I suddenly realized where I recognized this story of a magical island ruler – with their grotesque “sidekick” – who creates a storm that brings sailors to the island, one of whom falls for the magical ruler’s daughter. Yup, my Shakespeare-senses started tingling. Sure, they name the island Amaluna, change Prospero to Prospera (much like the Julie Taymor film), and change the name of Ferdinand, but The Tempest by any other name is just as magical.
And, as a Shakespeare adaptation, it’s not bad. The only thing that really rubbed me the wrong way was the fact that Ferdinand’s name was changed to… Romeo. Yes, Romeo. Because this is supposed to be a “Happily ever after” romance, which is exactly what Romeo got, right?
That eye-rolling detail notwithstanding, Amaluna really is a great show. It being the second circus show I’ve seen in a week (and I’m likely to see a third before the month is over), the bar was set pretty high. The Cirque folk did not disappoint. They greatly live up to their reputation for delivering one-of-a-kind spectacle with some of the world’s greatest performers. From golden unicyclists to aerial contortionists, from peacock dancers to tumbling teeterboard, the cast of Amaluna pull off feats that should be impossible for the human body, yet we watch each and every one of them take place right before our eyes.
And each act defines each character. Miranda, showing her connection to nature and the island, is played by Russian waterbowl dancer Anna Ivaseva; the strong and determined Romeo is given a solo on the Chinese pole and performed by Belgian Danny Vrijsen; and Caliban’s more vicious nature is more playfully mischievous (not unlike Puck) as portrayed by Russian juggler Vladimir Pestov. Even Prospera’s bright red Amazons (costumes are by the talented Mérédith Caron) define themselves on the uneven bars, a way of competing with Romeo’s fellow sailors.
If there were any sure-fire stars of the show, besides our two leads, the first would have to be the all-female band led by Canadian musician Anne Charbonneau. The soundtrack, by composers “Bob & Bill”, has a very ‘80s fantasy vibe to it reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s Legend, Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, and the Canadian animated film Rock & Rule. But the synth-heavy chords still find room for a björk-like aethereal atmosphere. That atmosphere is most apparent when the show stops for its other star: Asian-Swiss “Balance Goddess” Lili Ciao. The idea of balancing might not seem all that amazing, but Ciao’s routine – stacking an ever-increasing, ever-growing number of what-look-like-animal-bones with her bare hands – had the entire audience holding its breath and got the largest applause when it was over.
With so much going for it – including the show’s female-heavy cast and creative team, and the show’s unapologetically feminist bent – it’s hard to single out any genuine flaws, per se. Still, the show does run a bit too long. Even with the long intermission, several of the young’uns seated near me began to grow restless from the sheer length of the show. What’s more, the weakest part of the show was the slapstick routine of Maïnha & Yurick, Miranda’s nanny and Romeo’s manservant, respectively. It’s not the slapstick itself that fell short – both of the performers Kelsey Custard (US) and Thiago Andreuccetti (Brazil) are great – but the sequences go on a bit too long and the Pepe le Pew-esque nature of the routine felt out-of-place in the story. I see why the overtly clownish routine was part of the show, yet if it had been excised entirely (save for the pre-show and intermission sequences), I doubt anyone would have noticed.
Still, that’s just one smudge on an otherwise delightful evening of circus work. Seeing so many circus shows altogether – as well as knowing many circus performers personally – is a great reminder of how wonderfully complex circus and clowning are as an art. Cirque du Soleil undoubtedly has the highest number of resources working in its favor, but its creators are no less committed to showcasing the industry’s best and brightest. Amaluna combines Shakespeare, spectacle, and childlike sense of wonder in a nearly-seamless package. I don’t know when I’ll be able to see it again, but I’m grateful for the one chance that I did.
Cirque du Soleil’s Amaluna is scheduled to run until the 12th of January 2020 under the Big Top at Oracle Park in San Francisco (after which it will move to Sacramento).
The show runs roughly 2 ½ hours with a single 25-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.
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