Even for seasoned ART-goers, who are used to putting a brave face on disappointment, the past year has been tough going. Louise Kennedy seemed slightly stunned by Julius Caesar; Caroline Clay for once was nearly pun-less when confronted by Cardenio. Then came the elaborately discombobulated Communist Dracula Pageant; by the end of the year I realized I'd only had the heart to write about a single ART production - by and large the shows had just been too depressing even to ridicule.
Of course this was the last season patched together by Gideon Lester, once part of the artistic triumvirate guiding the theatre, and his strategy, which clearly was to hang onto whatever momentum he could by touching base with as many past successes as possible, partly delivered the goods only when he could actually bring back earlier imports, like Anna Deavere Smith, and now Aurélia Chaplin (above left), daughter of the creators of Le Cirque Imaginaire, an ART hit from the 90s. Smith's performance, Let Me Down Easy, proved shapeless but often affecting; alas, Chaplin's reprise of her parents' signature style is probably even less successful, due to the simple fact that so much of it feels second-hand. Still, Aurélia's Oratorio has its moments, and makes for a mildly diverting evening out - if you haven't seen Cirque Imaginaire, or Bill Irwin or even Cirque du Soleil, it's certainly worth considering at the half-price booth at Faneuil Hall.
The original Cirque Imaginaire, of course, more than deserved its wide reputation for surreal charm, which derived not only from the skill of its performers but also from its clever concept. Two people - Victoria Thiérrée Chaplin (daughter, yes, of the great Charlie) and husband Jean Baptiste Thiérrée, essentially conjured an entire circus before our eyes: Thiérrée handled the clowns and puppets, while Victoria impersonated the animal acts and performed mesmerizing feats of derring-do on the high wire and trapeze. A surreal, precise dreaminess ruled the show: Chaplin's walk on the wire, for instance, took place upside down - and there was also a sense of the danger floating under the actual big-top operating more freely in this new, imaginary space: puppets would sometimes pull knives on each other - or even on their handlers. The results were eerily sweet, slightly menacing, and strangely contained, as if the whole production were happening inside a snow globe.
Now Aurélia Chaplin - who as a child helped out on her parents' show - certainly has inherited their sense of showmanship; indeed, her Oratorio reprises almost all their tricks, but to slightly diminished effect. Part of the problem is that Chaplin has not also inherited their physical precision, but more importantly, she hasn't formulated a coherent new format for their sensibility. She has at least updated the viewpoint of the show from that of an introspective child to that of a twenty-something single girl with, apparently, boyfriend issues. But that's about all she's thought through, and without the assumed boundary of an imaginary circus ring, the show tends to grow amorphous and lose focus; it's just one bit of forced whimsy after another. To be fair, many of its images are striking - some are even poetic - but many tend to boil down to simple reversed or ironic juxtapositions (a kite "flies" a person; a mouse kills a cat, etc.) This "wit" begins to feel a bit mechanical, the menacing puppets and mind-games feel somehow warmed-over, and the little shards of narrative that drift through the ongoing pageant (the ex-boyfriend every now and then runs through calling her name), tease rather than enlighten. Like so many Gen Y pop acts, Aurélia has appropriated a solid base track from a boomer hit, but hasn't really brought any new melodies of her own to the project - there's no "why" to this Gen-Y re-incarnation of Cirque Imaginaire. As a result, I found my mind wandering (and I loved the original); still, if you're a new-vaudeville neophyte, this Oratorio could prove a satisfying-enough introduction to its genre.