Cirque du Soleil, which began rolling out its spectacular road shows 30 years ago, takes the best of a century of circus tradition—high-flying athletes, silk-surfing dancers, trapeze-dangling acrobatics—and envelopes the enterprise in an aura of theatricality that takes important elements from the world of the stage. Live music, outrageous sets and a unifying sense of theme and story are layered over the standard circus structure of unconnected acts, and it all strings together like elephants in a parade.
Currently running in the Bay Area are two shows that demonstrate the evolution of that idea. Amaluna, the new show from Cirque du Soleil (running through Jan. 12 at AT&T Park in San Francisco), brings a heightened sense of story and stage-show musicality to Cirque du Soleil's iconic striped circus tent.
Meanwhile, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the U.K.'s award-winning Kneehigh Theater (The Wild Bride) returns to the Rep with a restaging of the show that made them famous a decade ago. With its gorgeous air-born love scenes and soaring acrobatics, the dazzling Tristan & Yseult demonstrates the influence that Cirque du Soleil has had on the theatrical world, creating a remarkable loop of inspiration from theater to circus and right back to theater.
Directed by Kneehigh's resident visual genius Emma Rice, Tristan & Yseult takes the 1,000-year-old tragic romance and gives it a contemporary spin. As the audience enters, we find a group of hoodied, spectacled men with binoculars (dubbed "the love spotters") watching us from the spare but evocative set, all platforms and walkways, with one enormous mast jutting up from a round platform near center stage. To the rear, a band plays Roy Orbison's "Only the Lonely" and other pop tunes of failed romance, as a glowing neon sign proclaims "Club of the Unloved."
The narrator is the band's lead singer (a marvelous Carly Bawden), working the stage adorned in a '60s-era outfit with long white gloves (lit majors might guess the significance of this), beginning her story with the apparent death of Tristan (Andrew Durand), then rewinding to the beginning. Tristan is a wandering knight who's pledged his allegiance to King Mark of Cornwall (Mike Shepherd, working subtly through numerous internal shades and colors). After killing the coarse Irish invader Morhault, Tristan is sent by King Mark to Ireland, to bring back Morhault's sister Yseult (Patrycja Kujawska, sexy-sad and magnetic) to be the new queen of Cornwall.
With the help of a fateful love potion, and some steamy air-born choreography, Tristan and Yseult fall in love, setting in motion a series of deceptions, betrayals, heartbreaks and tragedies that lead back to the begging, where the woman with white gloves reveals her own connection to the story.
Amaluna, though far less plot-driven than Tristan, displays more storyline than most Cirque du Soleil shows. Borrowing elements from Shakespeare's Tempest, the new spectacle is set on a mysterious island peopled by spirits, animal-people, a love-struck lizard-man, the powerful sorceress Prospera and her beautiful daughter, Miranda, whose riotous coming-of-age celebration begins the show.
Each scene, built around a different demonstration of mindboggling physical skill, carries an element of the story, moving quickly through a mystical storm (powered by some rock-powered tunes played by a strutting band of female musicians), the arrival of shipwrecked mariners, the instant attraction between one of those castaways (called Romeo here) and Miranda, a plot to separate the lovers carried out by the lizard-man who secretly pines for Miranda and the eventual bittersweet conclusion.
Stirring and beautiful, Amaluna is one of Cirque du Soleil's most satisfying shows to date.
Ratings (out of five):
Tristan & Yseult ★★★★★