Immersive/Interactive

Cirque Ex Machina

Inside Cirque Du Soleil’s trademark blue-and-yellow big top, a stream of dusty golden light fills the tent, like so many metallic birds flitting above our heads. It seems the perfect setting for this Quebec-based nouveau cirque’s foray into the Victorian age, in a production engagingly titled KuriosCabinet of Curiosities. Written and directed by Michel Laprise, the show on Randall’s Island retrofits modernity with a captivating, old-age charm. The effect is transportive; the assorted delights of fishlike contortionists, aerialists and a hugely entertaining live band, prove just enough to take the audience on a trip well worth remembering. Despite its current global stature, the company’s performance history in New York been bumpy of late. Its two most recent projects were the lukewarmly received Toruk, at the Barclays Center, and Paramour, a kinetic Broadway musical that inspired derision in some circles. With Kurios, however, creator Michel Laprise has redeemed the reputation of his nouveau cirque and provided a magical spectacle.

Imin Tysdendambaeva, Bayarma Zodboeva, Ayagma Tysbenova, Serchmaa Bayarsaikhan as eel-like contortionists. Top: Nico the Accordion Man (Nico Baixas), Mr. Mircrcosmos (Karl L'Ecuyer) and Klara (Ekaterina Pirogovskaya) provide some comic relief. Photos: Martin Girard / shootstudio.ca Costumes: Philippe Guillotel © 2014 Cirque du Soleil

The show begins with a harum-scarum inventor, dressed in a white coat and nursing an electrically upright man-bun. He’s called the Seeker (a wondrously bumbling Eligiusz Scoczylas) and has a bevy of strange, fascinating characters following him around, including an accordion-costumed man (Nico Baixas) and a particularly fascinating Mini-Lili (Antanina Satsura, one of the world’s 10 smallest women). On a circular stage, mirrored by a circle of lights above the audience, our characters explore the power of human flight, of human imagination and its associated achievements of the Victorian Age.

Laprise has situated each set interestingly: he begins with a chaotic, drumming introduction to his curious world of mechanical marvels (Victrolas spin around the stage, and strange, beautiful contraptions creak and moan, Willy Wonka style—Stéphane Roy is set and props designer). Warbling, otherworldly music from a fantastic live band (Raphaël Beau is composer and musical director) punctuates this introduction with masterly emotion. Then Laprise starts us off with some light parlor entertainment: Gabriel Beaudoin’s juggling is a particular highlight. But it is in the following scenes that his “makeshift mechanical world” comes to life.

Without giving too much away, we are first treated to some flying performances from a Russian gymnastic duo (Roman and Olena Tereshchenko) and an aerial biker (Anne Weissbecker). A side-splitting comic (Facundo Gimenez) weaves in and out of these performances, providing some surprisingly non-distracting gags for the audience. His Invisible Circus is a special feat of coordinated, focused hilarity. All the while, music wafts deliciously past our ears, a perfect, eerie soundtrack to the mystery and engaging peculiarity of Laprise’s production. When a particularly accomplished Andrii Bondarenko (a hand-balancing artist) almost slips atop his tower of chairs, his apparent misstep is punctuated both by gasps and the live band’s cheeky drummer, whose badam-tshh signals that the slip was all a part of Bondarenko’s routine.

More examples of our Seeker’s mechanical world of flighty misfits present themselves: electric-eel contortionists and heart-stopping balancing acts from a sky-blue-garbed Aviator do not distract from, but rather augment, the pervading sense of weightless possibility in Laprise’s curious world. He posits that his invisible world, full of this endless possibility, exists right beneath the surface of our own world. More radically, he suggests that our own minds are cabinets of curiosities, housing such wonders as dovetailing aerialists, steampunk engines of ingenuity, and the hum of humanity’s greatest discovery: its own capacity for imagination. Rest assured, Cirque lovers: the circus of the sun has finally come to town.

Cirque du Soleil’s Kurios—Cabinet of Curiosities runs through Nov. 29 on Randall’s Island. Tickets (from $54 to $175) and transportation information are available by visiting cirquedusoleil.com/kurios or calling 877-924-7783.

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Feathered Enemies

The Birds, Conor McPherson’s creepy new play, is derived neither from Aristophanes nor Alfred Hitchcock. It does, however, share DNA with the 1963 film because both draw from a short story by Daphne du Maurier. (Hitchcock also used du Maurier novels as source material for Jamaica Inn and his Oscar-winning Rebecca.) Don’t expect to find real birds or even simulated ones in the pocket drama at 59E59 Theaters. Fans of the movie won’t find a pompous female ornithologist with environmental concerns or a schoolteacher with her eyes pecked out either. Diane (Antoinette Delvecchio) and Nat (Tony Naumovski are survivors of avian attacks in Conor McPherson's "The Birds." Top, Nat, Diane and Julia (Alexandra Hopp-whatsis) huddle together.

Rather, McPherson, who has made a name for himself with eerie dramas that occasionally invoke the supernatural—The Weir, Seafarer and Shining City—has produced an apocalyptic vision with only four characters. It’s an end-of-the-world scenario that simultaneously echoes the Bible’s origin story in Genesis.

In a remote house in the United States—Sonoma County isn’t mentioned, nor is Bodega, Calif., where the iconic white schoolhouse in the film resides—a man and a woman have taken refuge following waves of bird attacks. Director Stefan Dzeparoski pulls the audience in close with two long aisles dividing Konstantin Roth’s set into quarters and a small central area that is the main playing space. Marked as House in chalk by Antoinette LaVecchia’s Diane, it is here that she has been nursing Nat (Tony Naumovski) for two days, since they found refuge from the bird attacks. As in the film, there is no explanation of the avian uprising, although the birds seem to arrive and depart with the tides (it’s an annoying and unaddressed question why land birds, like sparrows, robins and crows, would be affected by the tides as seagulls might be—surely they aren’t flying out over the ocean?).

Soon after Nat’s fever breaks, a strange young woman named Julia (Mia Hutchinson-Shaw) arrives. Although Diane and Nat are in their forties, and some warmth inhabits the periphery of their relationship, Julia is in her early twenties and she has been traveling with gangs of thugs but surviving—yet how? McPherson gives Nat a history of what might be mental illness, or at least mental instability; it makes Diane apprehensive. For her part, Diane meticulously chronicles their days in a diary—she’s an author who is estranged from her family. As the trust breaks down in this nuclear “family” the tension builds.

Diane dresses Julia's head wound in "The Birds." Photos by Carol Rosegg.

Ien DeNio’s sound design—scratchy radio broadcasts and the flutter and flap of lethal wings outside their shelter—further enhances a sense of isolation  and raises the weirdness quotient. Moreover, there’s evidence of an occupant in a house across the lake, although humans are hard to find, and trips outside their shelter have to be timed between bird attacks.

After a reconnaissance mission during which she claims to have gotten lost, Julia shows up with cans of food from a house whose location she claims she can’t remember. But Diane later discovers the cans of food match gifts from the mysterious occupant across the lake, who, in a brief scene with her, brings them to her along with an unusual proposal. (Naumovski doubles as the character, wearing a terrific get-up designed by Kate R. Mincer, with an inverted birdcage for a helmet.)

The chills increase as Julia, the serpent in this macabre Eden, seduces Tony and becomes pregnant—or so she says. The play is a cautionary tale about violating the natural order and about facing the end of the world. Naumovski is excellent as the troubled hero, plagued by growing alcoholism and the demands to lead the threesome; Diane assumes the most rational role and yet at the end she proves ruthless; and Hutchinson-Shaw invests the high-spirited Julia with both immaturity and deceit.

Dzeparoski keeps the atmosphere dark and Kia Rogers’ lighting dim (contrary to points in McPherson’s script when windows are open). That’s effective in increasing the claustrophobia, but the director also tacks on a wordless coda that muddles the ending. McPherson’s finale, with objects chronicling the beginning and the end of the world in a spotlight, is more effective. Still, if you attend without the expectation of screaming, you’ll find this character study fascinating and unsettling.

Conor McPherson’s The Birds plays through Oct. 1 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and at 8:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday (no performances on Sept. 21, 23, 28 and 30). Matinees are at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $20 and may be purchased by calling Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visiting 59e59.org.

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