High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Location: Chicago, Illinois, United States

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Saturday, November 15, 2003

Cirque du Puree: Varekei

Uh, this is an excerpt snatched from the LA ASHG trip, the night we went to see Cirque du Soleil: Varekei and therefore begins in medias res.

We dropped off the boys' stuff in my hotel room, contemplated the sweat shop across the hallway (which was still going strong), idly considered setting up a network Doom deathmatch on my wireless network, and then repaired to my hotel bar to compare its offerings with those of the Biltmore. I regret to report that, in spite of the fluorescent lava flows on the floor (it was vaguely polynesian themed) and some leanings toward the wicker monkey end of the decorating spectrum (a good thing if you're me), it was quite an inferior bar. Nonetheless, we introduced Justin to Kir royales essentially brain dumped before heading off to see Cirque du Soleil's Varekai.

A deadly combination of generosity on the part of J and the bitchin' connections of his lovely wife C resulted in us getting seriously kick-ass seats. The show is set up in honest-to-goodness bigtops. Inside the main tent, the stage is set up at the ground level with stadium seating surrounding about 75% of it. The backstage area was a sort of bamboo forest extending almost to the top of the tent. There was a slight clearing off to stage left and a winding staircase left of that leading up to a rickety looking catwalk extending between the towers housing the follow-spot operators. About midway across the catwalk was a large, square structure that would emit the paraphenalia of madness and accept the crazies who would eventually be pulled up into it.

The show started with players meandering unobtrusively on to the stage amid forest sounds. At first, most came from the forest at the back, but eventually they began to emerge from beneath the stage until it was just filled with one fantastic costume after another: Lizards, dragons, grotesque bugs, a guy bounding around on pogo stilts, another guy with a massive sack on his back in which he carried another player. Throughout this, the audience continued talking and commenting on each new appearance.

Then, suddenly, one of the main players raced on to the stage, pushing an elborate cart and everyone else cleared out. He was bare chested with short, mud-colored breeches and a large, green fringe stuck around his waist as if he'd been shot through a drum and gotten stuck mid-way through. He also had quite dashing Ed Grimley hair and was very proud of it. He was flitting around the stage, enjoying the sounds of birds twittering and such, but kept getting interrupted by cell phones, planes, traffic and so forth. Everytime a sound would infuriate him, he'd leap around after it until he "caught" it and then stuff it into one end of the machine, dash from component to component, squeezing, pumping, and cranking each in turn until it transformed into another lovely bird sound to which he'd dance, flapping his arms. The pantomime and sound design were so perfectly synched with one another, it was as if the bit had been animated, rather than performed live. Sing ho! for 'wench's friend the sound designer. When he'd eradicated all the annoying sound, he ran off the stage with his cart and the tent was suddenly and completely dark except for a single fluttering green light near the top of the tent. A voice laid down the ground rules about noise pollution, recordings, cameras, flashes, etc.

When the lights came back up, players began to wander out again from the forest, some of them killing my inner stage manager softly by climbing high into the bamboo and swaying gently. The two singers, a man in purple robes and a turban, and a woman a lavendar gown and high crown, made their way out. They were on stage for almost every scene, but never obtrusive, even during the clear vocal highlights. Often they'd be up on the staircase, there if one wanted to watch them, but never taking over the scene. I really appreciated this, because, although the show would have been much the poorer without the vocalists, it's such a physical show that the acts really needed to have focus at all times. Nonetheless, as a performer who must know how vital your role is to the overall effectiveness of what the audience is seeing, it must be difficult to remain in the back ground.

The first act was "directed" by, to my mind, the most disturbing of the main players. His costume was like something out of a Jean-Pierre Jeunet film (in looking up the proper spelling of this, I find that there is a "City of Lost Children" video game, featuring the vocal talents of Ron Perlman; The world is a weird place): long, black leather coat, a bald cap (or a crown of marble by the grace of nature---we may never know), grey-white face makeup with black lip color and extensive shadowing to make him look gaunt and hollow. His helmet was sort of WWI German, but with a lightbulb instead of a pike. The lightbulb became a running joke and, overall, this guy was fairly silly, but jeebus he were scary lookin'.

As he raced around harassing minor players, the box at the top of the tent opened, slowly lowering a winged figure in a harness to the stage. I have to try to describe this person, even though I know I'll fail miserably. I'll get the embarassing stuff out of the way. He was wearing pink. Shimmery pink, loose-fitting breeches with tights underneath, shimmery pink shirt, shimmery pink body glitter, and a kind of Raggedy Andy/Andy Warhol rag wig. He was also, without a doubt, the most beautiful man I have ever seen, bar none. I don't mean "Oooh! How pretty! Must keep him in my pocket!"; I don't mean "Mmmm . . . yummy!"; I don't mean "Ungh. Must. have. now. Help?!" I mean fall down on your knees, weeping and worshipping beautiful. And being the Messiah, y'all know I have no other gods before me, so not prone to worship here.

Given this, I didn't think it would really matter what his act was, but apparently the good folks at Cirque wanted to be sure that they had me, body and soul. The Beautiful One lay on the stage, completely inert as the minions of the Man in Black (Too soon? Sorry, Mr. Cash) skittered around, distressed. With the MiB urging them on, they tore off his wings and he began to revive. The minions rolled him to the side and unfolded the material of the harness, which turned out to be a large net. Rolling him back on it and hooking it to the cable, which began to pull him slowly back up. I can't do justice to the sheer complexity of the act. As the cable was raised, lowered, and swung around the stage, he wove the net around himself, flattening himself against it and hanging spreadeagled, twisting it into a noose and hanging from one foot, and, most nerve-wrackingly, arching himself completely backward and hanging only from the back of his neck.

I honestly don't remember how the act ended, only that I didn't even have time to feel bereft when it did before the next amazing thing. I think the next act was the Slim-Jim tumblers. It's a testament to just how well all of this show works as a whole that none of these snarky characterizations even occurred to me while I was watching. This act featured three guys in yellow and red body suits with fringed spandex caps, so yes, they looked a great deal like the "EAT ME" guy. One would flip himself backward in to a low back jack sort of chair so his head was on the ground and his feet were straight up in the air. The second would vault over him, landing in a sitting position on his feet. Having gotten his balance, he'd launch himself into a series of backward flips in place over the chair, propelled by the first guy's feet. Occasionally, he'd give the flip a little extra oomph and land in a standing position on the first guy's feet. While the slim jims had center stage, there were similar shennanigans going on at the margins of the stage with women in Vegas-style feathery costumes. I honestly couldn't tell you whether they were any good or not, because I was too busy worrying that someone was going to get flipped on to his noggin at center stage.

I think the kiddies were next. These were three cute little guys in puffy suits that reminded me of Twikkie from Buck Rogers.They had two sort of lanterns attached by a long chain and did a bunch of elborate tossing and catching of them, interspersed with tumbling.They were quite good, but it went on a bit long and they seemed there solely for the cute factor. No doubt they appeal to the kiddies, and I know that that's a substantial chunk of the audience for Cirque, but I mostly went to my happy place with the Beautiful One during this act and the Georgian Dancers.

The Georgian Dancers, while very good, were frankly upstaged by their own creepy-ass minions. This was a troop of guys in shirts and pants with very full sleeves and legs in brilliant colors. Each wore a horrible, twisted grey mask on the top of his head and carried a gnarled cane. They moved as a body, hunched over, heads bent, so the masks appeared to be their faces. Mostly, they just lurched in place upstage of the dancers, but they were so terrifying and grim that it was difficult to concentrate on anything else.

My second favorite act came shortly after the intermission, featuring two brothers in the most wedgie-prone looking outfits I've ever seen. The body suits were a tight-fitting, lustrous deep blue-black covering from groin to just above the waist in the front and coming higher up to a point in the back. Shoulder-to-elbow arm sheaths and ankle-to knee legwarmers (I'm sorry, i call 'em as I see 'em) and feathered headpieces completed this highly masculine look. For anyone inclined to mock their leotards, I should note that these Manchester lads were walls of rock-fucking-solid muscle. I mean, seriously, all the bits that were not a horse had been well and truly chipped away. Most of their act had each of them suspended from a strap by one wrist at opposite ends of the stage. They started with lots of thrilling but frightening close passes in midair and flights over the heads of the audience. Later in the act, they spent a lot more time working together on passes with the two of them locked together or one suspending the other. Magnificent enough to tear my eyes away from the Beautiful One who also had a minor role in this act.

The final act was the most fun and the most nerve-wracking of a longs series of nerve-wracking acts. It also looked like a tremendous amount of fun. The singers were pushed out on to the stage in two enormous "cages" with perches. While some of the minor players danced and spun the cages, a dozen variations on the Eat Me motif furiously bolted the cages into the floor. Just when my attention was riveted on them, a gigantic bellows began to rise out of floor upstage and slightly to the left, eventually culminating in a large, square platform probably 10 feet above the stage. Meanwhile, fabric was stretched between two tall poles, forming a set of slides set obliquely flanking the platform.

And then the craziness started.

Five of the Slim Jims mounted each perch inside the two cages and set them two swinging. Two others mounted the platform and waited. When enough momentum had been built up, and the swings had completely flipped the axis a few times, the performer on the very end of the perch flipped off the end, landing on his feet on the linked arms of the guys on the platform, then flipped off on to one of the slides and scurried back into line. Interspersed with these were a few flips beyond the platform and directly on to the slides. I am comfortable with my own mortality. I don't ski, I'd never skydive, bungee jumping holds no allure for me. I break often enough that I'm aware of the fragility of this flesh wrapper, etc., but damn! I'd have totally taken a chance to flip on to one of those slides, even after one of the guys didn't get enough distance and missed the hands of the catchers (and nearly missed the platform entirely). Later, the minions turned the swings toward one another and the peformers began flipping off the end of one perch directly on to the other, then running the length of the plank and underneath it to get back in line. Fucking amazing.

There were a number of other really great acts. I think that I was not able to appreciate the contortionist with canes in the same way that the boys were. She was fantastic. She was lovely. She was decidedly stretchy. She ended up "marrying" The Beautiful One. She needs to die painfully, possibly by choking on her own talus. Bitca. The juggler was tremendous.The lounge-singing clown act and his assistant were hilarious. I'm doing each of them a disservice by not recounting their acts in details, but there's no room in my head form them after the ones that just blew me away completely. I truly wish that I'd had the cash to pick up one of the masks or something else, but I had to settle for the "headless man with umbrella" ornament, which tickles me every time I look at it.

Tickets for Cirque are hella expensive, this I know, but given that I left this show thinking that I would love to take everyone dear to me, I can't say that they aren't worth every bit of it.

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