After 25 years, you’d think “Cirque du Soleil” would have lost the ability to astonish.
But as evidenced by the Montreal-based troupe’s new production, “Ovo,” their 25th production in a quarter of a century, they can still manage to come up with unnerving gravity-defying performances, eye-popping costumes, clever ways for contortionists to squeeze their bodies into the most uncomfortable positions, and creative ways to incorporate clowning and humor throughout a show.
This marks the fourth time that “Cirque du Soleil” has played Hartford, each time setting up its blue and yellow Grand Chapiteau “big top” on Market Street in Hartford, just north of the intersection of I-84 and I-91. The show has been extended and will now be playing through July 11 in Hartford.
Was there really any chance that “Ovo,” which means “egg” would lay one? Of course not. “Ovo” does include most of the types of acts that we do expect from “Cirque du Soleil,” especially from one of their extremely family friendly shows. But here they put a new spin on their past triumphs, by actually developing a distinguishing concept that they carry out throughout the entire evening. Everyone is “Ovo” is an insect, from dragonflies to spiders, from ants to cockroaches, which, as imagined by writer, director and choreographer Deborah Colker, easily accommodates Cirque’s typical assemblage of acrobats in a colorful and sometime quite spectacular environment.
One of the sweetest and most touching moments occurs early in the evening as Flipo, the leader (or ringmaster) of the bug world awakens his vast assemblage of insects to a new day. They respond to the summons, some reluctantly, some eagerly, and stand before us rubbing their eyes open, a moment that connects with our innocent inner child and allows us to approach what we are about to see with the appropriate delight and awe.
Flipo, the ringmaster (Benoit Fontaine, Cirque du Soleil)
The costumes by Liz Vandel are simply dazzling, with insects identified by antennae, wings, sharply identified faces and an array of unexpected colors. Among the more stunning are those worn by the crickets, which incorporate their unique back legs, and the clearly outlined thoraxes and military-like skull caps of the scarabs. In addition to each insect group having its own set of distinguishing costumes, Vandel has outfitted the three main characters in bright reds, blues and greens, which enables them to quickly achieve specific identities. In actuality, these are the clown characters who typically hold together a Cirque evening, appearing between acts to add humor to the evening. But cast as insects, their antics are more character driven and less intrusive than in previous Cirque editions.
In addition to Joseph Collard as the ringmaster Flipo, there’s the delightful and funny Michelle Matlock as a lovesick ladybug, and Francois-Guillaume LeBlanc as the stranger, who arrives into this insect community carrying a huge egg on his back. While he clearly values this treasure, which Flipo also ardently desires, the stranger is immediately taken by the ladybug. Their comic interplay as Flipo and his crew try to hide the egg and the ladybug is confused by where the stranger’s true feelings lie forms what little plot there is in the show (which actually is more than usual for a Cirque production). The stranger’s strained, plaintive cries for his missing “ovo” are quite funny and touching.
“Cirque du Soleil” admirably maintains a commitment to accompanying the performance with live music. Music director Berna Ceppas has assembled a stronger score than usual, filled with South American and African influences, mixing percussion, samba, salsa and jazz. The set design of Gringo Cardia and lighting design of Eric Champoux reflects this atmosphere as well, but employing darker hues give the appearance of a miniature world located close to the ground, way beneath the grass, leaves and flowers of the surrounding tropical forest. There are even two large, overwhelming tropical flowers that open up at key points during the show and actually shoot off a fragrance, apparently the first time a Cirque production has used aromatic effects.
And as for the acts (there are, of course, no animals in a Cirque production, just the remarkable abilities of its human performers), how do they fare within this concentrated theme? Many of the acts are admittedly similar to those in other Cirque productions, and sometimes if you’ve seen one balancing act, you’ve seen them all. That is true of the foot juggling ants, who balance and throw large round cylinders that look like slices of food around to each other in ever-faster and more complicated movements. Two butterflies revel in dangerously spinning, dancing and sliding up and down a rope in an act that while it amazes calls to mind those in past Cirque shows. In fact, the acrobatic fleas who climb and balance atop each other are quite disappointing, so much so that this reviewer was more enchanted by the vagaries of the live musical accompaniment. And a hanging twirling cocoon made of a long, slender fabric from which a butterfly is apparently trying to emerge seems to miss entirely the opportunities for grace and revelation that have characterized similar acts in the past.
Spider (Benoit Fontaine–Cirque du Soleil)
When “Ovo” trods into new territory, however, it can be exhilaratingly ravishing. Vladimir Hrynchenko’s dragonfly demonstrates some intriguing hand balancing and sliding, while Tony Frebourg’s firefly puts a dazzling spin on the diabolo, in which a large double bowled spool is manipulated up and down a string and juggled in the air. At one point, the firefly is managing four spools, which get increasingly tossed higher and higher. Later a strange creature crawls on stage, gradually revealing its arms, legs, torso and head to be elaborate slinky-like extensions which contract and expand to create any number of marvelous new formations and combinations.
A contortion act involving two spiders works splendidly within the insect concept, with a surrounding spider web waiting to capture curious crickets. A third petit spider, the energetic and endearing Li Wei, performs some precarious balancing maneuvers on a slack wire, earning genuine admiration from the audience and the opportunity to engage in some humorous antics with breathtaking somersaults and perilous dives.
The highlight is a remarkable act performed by the crickets who have been silently skulking about the stage throughout the evening. A wall suddenly appears at the back of the stage and several treadmills containing trampolines are revealed, as a deliciously chaotic ballet of wall walking, jumping, and flying commands attention in a fitting conclusion to the evening.
The only perplexing disappointment of the evening is the purpose of the title character itself, the ovo. It appears occasionally throughout the evening, being rolled or ferried across the thrust stage, but it really seems to serve no purpose. None of the acrobats perform any extensive tricks on it, nor does it crack open to reveal what is inside. In fact, at the end it appears that Flipo is about to serve a grand buffet to the entire cast and one suspects that it might be the egg, but that proves not to be true. So we’re left not only with the mystery of the egg, but with the more important question we have been asking ourselves throughout the evening: “How did they do that?”
“Ovo” is terrific for the youngster in all of us. It’s genuinely difficult not to find yourself grinning with delight at some trick or maneuver that suddenly, unexpectedly thrills and amazes. With four or five different shows touring internationally and seven different shows based in Las Vegas alone, Cirque du Soleil is an industry unto itself that continually finds new ways to dazzle
For more info: The performances are Tuesdays thru Thursdays at 8:00 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 4:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 1:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. No performances on Mondays. Tickets are available via www.cirquedusoleil.com/ovo or at 1-800-450-1480. A VIP Tapis Rouge™ package is also available. It includes one of the best seats in the house, as well as access to the VIP suite one hour before the show and during intermission.