What in the blue blazes is an empty spectacle like Cirque Éloize’s Cirkopolis doing as part of Canadian Stage’s season?
I’m no snob when it comes to clowns and contortionists. I love what are now referred to as the “circus arts,” and am proud of the Canadian companies, mostly from Quebec, that continue to dominate the field around the world – even as older U.S. outfits like Ringling Brothers have had to shut down.
It’s always a happy day for me when Cirque du Soleil sets up its grand chapiteau in Toronto’s docklands for one of its high-quality touring shows – or when commercial producer David Mirvish brings my favourite boundary-pushing troupe, Les 7 doigts de la main, to town.
But Canadian Stage is Toronto’s best-subsidized theatre company – and presenting a pure razzle-dazzle act such as Cirkopolis, a show actually less artistically daring than some of the circuses that have visited lately via commercial avenues, is a step too far outside its mandate for my tastes.
Co-directed by Cirque Éloize president Jeannot Painchaud and bad-boy choreographer Dave St-Pierre (in good-boy mode here, sadly), Cirkopolis takes place in a retrofuturist world vaguely inspired by Fritz Lang’s 1927 expressionistic sci-fi classic, Metropolis.
In a city in the clouds, an office drone (Ashley Carr) goes through a dreary day pushing paper and ringing bells – until circus acts begin to happen all around him.
You know the routines: Gymnastics, group juggling, folks flying up into the air off the ends of giant teeter-totters.
Performing in the Bluma Appel Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts rather than a big top, Cirque Éloize is no doubt limited in the trickery it can do.
Perhaps that is why parts of Cirkopolis seem repetitive. For instance, we get a woman in a red dress spinning around in a giant hoop and then, shortly thereafter, a shirtless strongman spinning himself around in a pair of hoops linked together called a German Wheel. (This industrial-looking device was invented in Germany in 1925, the year Metropolis was filmed.)
Likewise, shortly after an oh-my-gosh routine high up on a Chinese pole (a wobbly fire pole), we get a slightly less oh-my-gosh routine high up a rope hanging in the same general area. After the first few scenes, no real narrative arc connects any of this – just a lot of schtick.
Now, I’m not one of those people allergic to broad clowning, but even I found much of what is in Cirkopolis cheesy. To be fair, the clowns and I got off on the wrong foot, as two gibberish-spouting dudes in trench coats joking around in the audience preshow made a gag out of blocking me as I was trying to pop out for a last-minute pee. It made those watching laugh (like my traitorous wife), but I was not amused.
Cirkopolis’s look is less than innovative – cliché costuming by Liz Vandal, dreary lighting by Nicolas Descoteaux.
The 3D animated backdrops designed by Stéfan Boucher and Rénald Laurin, meanwhile, remind less of the heyday of German expressionist film in the 1920s than first-person shooters from 15 years ago, gloomy abandoned industrial spaces with lots of giant, rotating cogs.
Look: If you’re jonesing for jugglers, you’ll likely have a enjoyable time at Cirkopolis.
But the fact that the show – which has played off-Broadway and been taken around China by the company that introduced that country to Cats – is taking up a prime three-week slot in Canadian Stage’s main stage season is irksome. (The nearby Sony Centre is the other co-presenter.)
If you’ve been to the Toronto contemporary theatre company in the past number of years, you no doubt know that it no longer strictly presents theatre – but, under artistic director Matthew Jocelyn, is taking a refreshing interdisciplinary approach that includes opera, dance and all sorts of hybrid work.
Should acrobats be included in this omnivorous view of the performing arts? I can see some circus shows occasionally fitting the bill – but Canadian Stage is presenting two this season, and another two next season.
If it were similarly overloaded with, say, Canadian plays, I might be more forgiving. Indeed, it was once a theatre company that would occasionally put our playwrights in a space with more than 250 seats in Toronto.
Now, Mirvish Productions’ Off-Mirvish season is the only place our stage writers will find that opportunity – unless they’re Robert Lepage, co-creating with a major choreographer or trying their hand at opera.
Cirkopolis (canadianstage.com) continues until March 18.Report Typo/Error