December 28th, 2014

Cirque de Soliel, “Varekai”

On Saturday, Dec. 20th, we went to the BMO Harris Center (formerly the Bradley Center), to see “Varekai,” by Cirque de Soleil. “Varekai” is not as large or as spectacular as some other Cirque shows, but was very beautiful, and played well in this venue.

The show has a loose plot, based upon the myth of Icarus, son of Daedalus, who in escaping the Island of Crete, flew “too near the sun,” so that his wings made of wax and feathers melted. In this show, instead of crashing into the sea and dying, Icarus survives a hard landing on an island even stranger than those visited by Odysseus. Derived from a Romany word meaning “Wherever,” Varekai is inhabited by part-human Chimeras, some part insect, some part reptile, part sea creature, or even plant. Icarus is taken up by the friendly natives and given into the care of the Skywatcher, a Pan-like character who is, like Daedalus, an inventor. (In an opening sequence, he demonstrates a “steampunk” device that converts unpleasant noises into birdsong.) The other mostly human character is called The Guide, an irascible being who lives underground, but who introduces Icarus to “Promise”, a beautiful lizard-woman he falls in love with.

The Skywatcher tries to assist Icarus, who can’t walk due to injuries, by constructing a balloon. This goes against the desires of the gods, who greet its appearance with darkness, thunder, and lightning. Two spirits of the air descend and abduct Promise. Later, after Icarus has various other adventures and encounters, as portrayed in the various aerial, acrobatic, and juggling acts, Promise is returned, transfigured into a veritable goddess, and her betrothal to Icarus is celebrated.

Like other Cirque productions, “Varekai” is accompanied by a complete live score, much of which also has vocal accompaniment in their trademark “no-language.” Act merges into act through lighting changes and dance interludes, which make it a complete and thoroughly designed single work of art. Some of the acts, as frequently happens with Cirque, seem to push the envelope of what is humanly possible, especially the finale “Russian Swing” act, which seems to defy physics.

Having now seen a number of Cirque productions, I have come to understand the importance of the clown acts. Each show typically has two or three characters that are only clowns, frequently interact with the audience, and have their own self-contained routines. Besides giving the audience a break from the sustained action, they allow the other performers, who mostly act in several routines, time for the complete costume changes they require. Although the two clowns for this show were quite funny in themselves, unlike everyone else in the show, their costumes and routines were “contemporary,” which I found disharmonious with the rest of the show. For example, they did a “clumsy magician” act of the type made notorious by Dom DeLuise as "Dominick the Great", and one where the male clown, singing the French version of “If You Go Away” tries vainly to keep illuminated by a wandering spotlight. I would have liked the clown bits better if they had been more integrated with the overall production and didn’t “break the frame” quite as much.

“Varekai” was a gorgeous and thrilling visual experience, which we were very glad to have been able to see. We will continue to be interested in Cirque de Soleil whenever we can see them.

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The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies

The third installment of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit,” “The Battle of Five Armies,” as the British say, “does exactly what it says on the tin.” That is, it is mostly made up of combats of one sort or another, beginning with Smaug’s disastrous attack on Laketown, followed by the White Council’s raid on Dol Guldur and rescue of Gandalf.

Before the main event, however, there is some respite, in which we see Thorin’s (Richard Armitage) descent into “dragon sickness” effectively developed, which makes Thorin’s callous dismissal of the survivors of Laketown credible, although approached by Bard (Luke Evans) for help in a very reasonable manner.

Fortunately, once the main battle starts, it isn’t just an hour of crashing and bashing. Taking a leaf from classic war films such as “The Longest Day,” the film moves around from character to character as the day of warfare develops. Dain Ironfoot (Billy Connolly) in the field with the Iron Hills dwarves; Azog (Manu Bennett), masterminding the battle; not-quite-as-big-a-bastard-as-before Thranduil (Lee Pace), having some hard choices forced upon him; Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), being part of those choices; the Company of Thorin reacting to their leader’s paranoia; and Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) each in their own way trying to save something from the wrack. In these days, when we have ready reminders of the plight of civilians in war zones, I was particularly gratified by the portrayal of the desperate situation of the Laketowners, who, compared with everyone else, are outnumbered, poorly armed, and encumbered with non-combatants. It’s hard to care about legions of largely faceless (and computer generated) dwarves, elves, and orcs, but the humans are all individuals and it’s easier to be worried about what happens to them when the ruins of Dale change from a sanctuary to a hunting ground.

The deaths of the major characters are handled sensitively and in good harmony with Tolkien’s story. I liked it that the aftermath of the battle was shown as far more melancholy than glorious. (“Nothing except a battle lost can be half as melancholy as a battle won.” –Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington).

All in all, a satisfying conclusion to Jackson’s retelling of “The Hobbit,” which somewhat compensates for the over-blownness of the first two parts. Taking the events and the characters of “An Unexpected Journey,” and “The Desolation of Smaug” as givens, I had essentially nothing to quibble with.

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“Into the Woods” the movie

We saw "Into the Woods" this afternoon (Dec.28th) and liked it quite a bit. Of course, it's a show we particularly like, and have seen some good stage productions of.

"Into the Woods" was one of the first major works to use the conceit of putting well-known fairy tales into the same milieu, an idea that has since been used with considerable success by the comic series "Fables," and the TV show "Once Upon a Time," among others. The four items needed by the Witch tie together four plots into a single braid, an idea which works well in my opinion, and devices such as the Baker being the man who buys Jack's cow being rather clever.

(For those not familiar with the musical, the first act ties together the stories of Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Jack and the Beanstalk (Daniel Huttlestone), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), and Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) with an arc in which the Baker (James Corder and his Wife (Emily Blunt), who are the second generation of the Rapunzel story, deal with the Witch (Meryl Streep) in order to be able to have a child, also a classic myth trope. In the second act, things go south as the Giant’s Wife (Frances de la Tour) devastates the kingdom seeking revenge on Jack, and the characters’ community is torn apart by loss and bickering as to who’s to blame.)

The plot actually has considerable philosophical depth, not only with the frame metaphor of the Woods being the place of transformation, where the "hero's journey" begins. I also like the losses of innocence experienced by Red Riding Hood, Jack, the Baker and his Wife, and Cinderella. There is also the question of the transience of satisfaction once the hitherto unattainable has been gained, as personified by the Princes (more so in the stage version than the movie).

We particularly liked Meryl Streep as the pivotal character of The Witch (although Bernadette Peters, who played the role on Broadway, is still THE Witch,) and Emily Blunt as the Baker’s Wife. All the actors did their own singing, according to the credits, and did very well, handling Stephen Sondheim’s occasionally challenging music deftly. Sondheim’s score for “Into the Woods” is rather more tuneful than say “Sweeney Todd,” or “Assassins,” and there are many powerful "motivs" such as the "Into the Woods," theme, "Agony," and "Children Will Listen," all of which usually stick with me for days after hearing a performance.

Due to limitations on practical staging, the typical stage version is played in front of The Woods, with a few set pieces that move on and off, and you never actually see the Princes' castle, either of the Giants, or some of the other locations opened out for the film, which did expand it quite a bit. (On the other hand, I appreciate bits of stagecraft in theatre such as having the presence of the Giant Wife indicated by her broken spectacles on stage--.) I did think the scenery additions were an enhancement, and liked it that they kept themes such as never seeing the Giant’s Wife fully.

Your mileage may vary, but I would class "Into the Woods" as highly recommended for fans of musical theatre.

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