Thursday, January 27, 2011

Gen Y goes to the circus

I suppose the circus will spring eternal - or at least that's what I thought after watching Psy (pronounced "See" because it's Franch, dontchaknow) the millennial circus at ArtsEmerson that spurns the usual accoutrements of the form.  There aren't any spangles, sequins or peekaboo leotards here, and certainly little sense of eurotrashy va-va-voom. Indeed, you get the feeling the show's creators, the Montreal troupe The Seven Fingers of the Hand, almost spurn that kind of sexy showmanship; they probably think the garishly fantastic Cirque du Soleil (also spawned in Montreal, btw) would be better termed Cirque du So Lame.

No, the Fingers prefer to affect the shrugging mope of the millennium; sometimes they take stuff off, sure, but they prefer to chill out in slacks, with their shirt-tails out.  And their set is self-consciously utilitarian - indeed, it's almost anti-fantastic; it looks like the shelf you'd store your computer peripherals on.  The twist they bring to the circus is that they're casual about it, and everything about them all but screams "Whatever, dude."

But trust me,  it's still the circus, just the same, even if at first things seem a little grim as we're introduced to an encounter group full of depressed and damaged souls - an insomniac, an agoraphobic, an amnesiac - you name it.  But it turns out, of course, that these mental patients are also the familiar types from the big top, like the knife-thrower, the juggler, and the girl on the flying trapeze; and their circus skills allow them to either express or escape their "real-world" depression with the greatest of ease.

Which is what the circus has always done, and this clinical wrinkle on the basics of the form strikes you as more and more clever as the evening progresses.  For it allows the wonders of jumps and flips and outright flight to erupt out of the realistic; there are no big set-ups in Psy, no drum rolls and often not even a spotlight; instead, astonishing acrobatics just start to happen before your disbelieving eyes.

Of these wonders, perhaps my favorites were the whimsically quicksilver "juggling" of Florent Lestage (who sometimes seemed like Bip on Ritalin), and Julien Silliau's intensely hypnotic turn on the German wheel, as well as Héloïse Bourgeois and William Underwood's narcoleptic routine on the Chinese pole. And the girl on the flying trapeze - Danica Gagnon-Plamondon (the one with the fear of heights!) - was of course thrilling as she swung up among the rafters of the Cutler Majestic. Perhaps my favorite moment, however, was the riotous cluster-juggle in which the stage seemed to suddenly be filled with a veritable cloud of candlepins.

To be brutally honest, sometimes the studied casualness of the Fingers looks a little unfocused at the edges - but they make up for this with that subtly joyous sense of surprise. And sure, the psychological "concept" winds up being half-forgotten as the most exciting acts get going - but who cares? By the end of the evening, as the cast crowds to the edge of the stage, ready to diagnose the audience, too, I guarantee whatever mental cloud you're under will have completely lifted.

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