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Theatre in Review: Luzia (Cirque du Soleil/Citi Field)

Matt Beard © 2017 Cirque du Soleil.

After a few misfires and a couple of failed attempts at taking Broadway, things are looking up again at Cirque du Soleil. The troupe's latest touring show, Luzia, has some fresh design ideas, a number of excellent acts, and an overall lightness of spirit that make it the most entertaining Cirque show in years. The show is billed as "a waking dream of Mexico," and from the minute one enters the tent, one can sense the difference. The circular deck, with a raised runway in the center, is filled with flowers. Upstage is an enormous vertical disk, suggestive of an Aztec sun stone; on it, one sees flickering lights that could be fireflies or sunspots. The look is strong, uncluttered, highly intriguing. Even more interestingly, the show doesn't open with a bang: One musician enters, then another, until a voice on the PA announces that we are on a flight taking off for south of the border. An enormous key is seen, sticking out of the stage; a clown, identified as a traveler, turns it; the runway starts moving, and we're off. A woman in a butterfly dress dashes down the treadmill, chased by an enormous horse puppet made out of plates of perforated metal. It's a bold image, vividly realized, and it gets the show off to a rousing start.

The next act features performers dressed as birds -- complete with wings and beaks -- running along the moving pathway, leaping through hoops -- as many as four, stacked vertically -- as they go. The sheer display of agility is exhilarating. There's also a touch of intimacy about the act, which proves to be a hallmark of this production. Indeed, many of the most captivating acts have a slightly surreal touch. A set of cacti appear on the stage's perimeter as two women roll around in hoops, joined by a trapeze artist dangling precariously over the action. A hand-balancing act is fit into a silent-cinema scenario, with everyone carrying on as if appearing in a version of a Mack Sennett bathing beauty comedy, frolicking among cutout waves while the lifeguard erects a stairway to the stars out of flexible canes, tottering overhead in gasp-inducing fashion. A three-hundred-sixty-degree swing routine pays tribute to the Mexican tradition of masked wrestlers. A pool built into the deck allows [an aerial strap performer to occasionally dunk himself between astonishing feats of movement in midair. Other acts include jugglers, contortionists, and a knockout routine in the eleven o'clock slot, featuring acrobats leaping from one moving swing to another, executing triple and quadruple somersaults. Virtually all of these are enhanced by a frequently moving turntable, offering a variety of viewing angles no matter where one is seated in the tent. In some Cirque shows the clowns can sometimes be effortful or overbearing, but there are no such concerns here. The traveler is the only figure of fun in the show, and his frustrated search for water -- a task made rather more amusing by the onstage water curtain -- provides plenty of genuine laughter.

Indeed, the Mexico concept seems to have inspired the design team. Eugenio Caballero's scenic and prop design evoke a sense of Mexico using a few bold strokes, most of them from local culture, such as an array of votive candles, seemingly taken from Day of the Dead ceremonies, for the contortionist; another exciting touch is the circular curtain, done in the style of papel picado, the local craft made using sheets of perforated paper. Martin Labrecque's lighting is sharply angled and filled with color, providing an extra touch of theatricality. Johnny Ranger's projections, many of them seen on the upstage disk, range from abstract color blocks to rippling effects to a swarm of ants and collages of eyes. Giovanna Buzzi's costumes often verge on the surreal: Performers have metal fish heads, arms that become serpents. A singer's long white dress blooms in the lower regions with blood-red flowers. Max Humphries' puppets bring armadillos, beetles, and leopards to life. Jacques Boucher's sound design is among the best ever for a Cirque touring show; it isn't overbearing, yet one can make out all the instrument lines, with the vocals sitting comfortably on top.

Overall, the creative team seems to have done its collective homework, combining imaginative appropriation of Mexican cultural tropes with a solid lineup of acts and a fast-paced, cheerful staging that never slips into pretentiousness or obscurity. An ideal family entertainment, it can easily be enjoyed with or without kids in tow. Luzia makes a persuasive case that Cirque du Soleil is back, doing what it does best, in new and more inventive ways. If you haven't seen this company in a while, now would be an excellent time for a catch-up. --David Barbour

(9 May 2019)

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