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A scene from Spiegelworld’s Empire.

2.5 out of 4 stars

Title
Spiegelworld’s Empire
Directed by
Terence O’Connell
Actors
Don Colliver and Jamie Franta
Venue
Under the Spiegeltent
City
Toronto
Year
2015
Runs Until
Sunday, October 18, 2015

The circus business is in flux and fragmenting. As summer winds down in Toronto, Cirque du Soleil usually sets up its Grand Chapiteau in the city's Port Lands. This year, however a new troupe of acrobats and clowns is in town in a petit chapiteau parked next to the Gardiner Expressway.

Empire, which has already passed through Montreal, Quebec City and Ottawa and is on its way to Vancouver in the new year, is from a group called Spiegelworld. They perform familiar tricks and burlesque funny business on a small, circular stage inside what's described as a "Belgian-style Spiegeltent."

Don't expect any Flemish fire-eaters, though: Empire is framed as a kind of tribute to New York, and it is created largely by an Australian creative team. It definitely has the in-your-face and slightly overeager feel of an entertainment from down under.

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Ross Mollison, the Aussie producer who brought Puppetry of the Penis to the world, is the impresario behind the endeavour. Circus Oz's Terence O'Connell is the director, and Baz Luhrmann collaborators John O'Connell and Angus Strathie are choreographer and designer, respectively.

While Empire is billed as "a Cirque du Soleil recommended evening out," don't bring the kids. It's aimed at adults, which is to say it is crass and puerile – starting with a preshow announcement that drops F-bombs in a self-conscious display of edginess.

Our hosts are the clowns Oscar (Don Colliver) and Fanny (Jamie Franta) who begin the show by licking bald men's heads and thrusting their genital regions at front-row faces. "It's a balls on the leg kind of show," Oscar declares – and, there, you've been warned.

Over the course of Empire, I came to grudgingly admire Oscar and Fanny's vaudevillian talents. Franta performed perhaps the only burlesque routine I have ever truly found entertaining, while a disgustingly ingenious bit where the two spat banana into each other's mouths is one I will cherish in memory in case I ever accidentally swallow a poison and need to induce vomiting.

This is where Empire differs from Cirque then: The clowns speak English and they're vulgar. As for the rest of the acts, there's not much new under this little top.

Indeed, the female feats are slightly diminished by Empire's attempts to be sexy in a rather cookie-cutter way.

The Gorilla Girls' routine early in the show – two Ukrainian women and an American woman forming pyramids, then flipping the smallest one about – feels a bit silly as the three are required to pout in matching Natalie-Portman-in-Closer hairstyles in between displays of athleticism. Miss A in a Bubble (New Zealand contortionist Lucia Carbines, indeed in a bubble) is styled in a similar way; it's a shame, as contortionism is more intriguing when it subverts what we expect from bodies – and is never a turn-on.

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The most impressive trick is a foot-juggling routine by a pair of men from Ethiopia named Henok Belchew Yazachew and Temegen Adole Zada. The big guy tosses the little guy over and over with his feet: It's pretty extreme, and they look genuinely cool while doing it.

Ending Empire with a "Sanddorn balance" act – 14 large sticks and a feather slowly, delicately placed one atop the other by Andreis Jacobs Rigolo – seems to me a pacing faux pas. It's a very pensive trick and seemed to come just as the booze was wearing off for much of the crowd. Perhaps I was simply bored, having seen the trick already in Cirque's Amaluna – but it's not a feat you need to see over and over.

There's little art to balance the spectacle in Empire. The shock-jock tone certainly won't be to everyone's taste, while the aesthetic is muddled. There are Ramones, Beastie Boys and New York Dolls posters on stage trying to impart second-hand cool, but the costumes bring to mind a crossover movie where Moulin Rouge meets Hellboy. The inclusion of Occupy New York paraphernalia and Guy Fawkes really feels try-hard.

Music-wise, pre-recorded selections from Cake to Azealia Banks are a nice change from gibberish droning, but the live singing from Miss Purple (Brampton's own Tessa Alves) comes off as karaoke without a full band to back her. If a rock-cabaret version of the Alicia Keys part from Empire State of Mind sounds up your alley, however, you are in luck.

As far as small-scale circus goes, Quebec's Les 7 doigts de la main really have it nailed. They capitalize on the intimacy by letting us meet the people who are doing the performing. Empire follows the Cirque tradition of ignoring the humans in the costumes – we only meet "Polka Dot Woman," "Lime Green Lady" and "Half Naked Asian Dude Wearing Pigtails" – and uses the proximity of the audience to merely make the acts seem more dangerous.

Empire is definitely up close, but not personal at all.

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Empire continues to Oct. 18 in Toronto (spiegelworld.ca).

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