Now playing in the capacious Verizon Center, Quidam is the current iteration of the Montréal-based Cirque du Soleil, the amazing French-Canadian entertainment combine that has, in many ways, redefined the good old-fashioned circus as a uniquely theatrical performance art form. Its current show — surprisingly dark and introspective — is an auditorium-based revival of its ninth tent show which first appeared in 1996.
Dispensing with animal acts, Cirque du Soleil productions focus primarily on acrobats and jugglers, with one or more distinct clowns lurking at all times in the background. Each of the company’s shows deploys its performers to serve as symbolic characters in a relatively metaphysical and very French-style plotline loaded with enigma and innuendo. Each audience member is invited to journey into his or her own psyche one a voyage of self-discovery.
Quidam is a uncommonly gloomy approach to the standard Cirque du Soleil theme. The show’s odd title is derived from a Latin word that’s roughly translated as “someone,” “someone unknown,” or—stretching things a bit—someone and everyone. In French legal circles, the term is used to describe an individual who’s not identifiable by facial features; hence unknown but theoretically knowable.
And it’s this definition that’s almost certainly intended in this show. Your tip-off is a wandering, headless character who shows up from time to time holding an umbrella, presumably to keep the rain (storms rumble throughout the story) from dampening his nonexistent cranium. Evidently, that character is probably supposed to be us.
In any event, with “Quidam” lurking about, the show’s suggestive plotline follows Zoé, a clearly nice but bored little girl. She’s quietly, implicitly constrained by the sheer ennui generated by her newspaper-reading, suit-and-tie dad and her Donna Reed, 1950s-style mom. Zoé’s parental units soon disappear into the clouds as Zoé’s imagination takes hold, whisking her to a dark realm. There, her weird host-ringmaster John (Mark Ward) guides her through a dimension where mostly aerial circus acts will presumably liberate her imagination to fly along along with them.
Lacking the razzle-dazzle of most Cirque productions, Quidam is somber and at times actually downbeat. Costuming is sleek and sometimes colorful, but often resorts to monotone beige and brown, all of which, perhaps, is meant to match the sheer bleakness of our own troubled economic times.
That said, the show’s various acts will still appeal to the connoisseur of circus arts as opposed to those who are seeking sheerly spectacular thrills. The attraction of each act is based more on artistry than on acrobatic derring-do. That said, the brilliant, semi-arc scaffolding that efficiently flings performers up, up, and away is a marvel of design skill and efficiency that will not fail to impress even the most hardened structural engineer. And spectacle does actually occur, although always quietly and thoughtfully.
The acts themselves are astonishingly esoteric and often quite mesmerizing. Acrobat Cory Sylvester whirls about the stage flitting in and out of what appears to be a giant metal spool. Known in the trade as the “German Wheel,” it doesn’t initially appear to be very promising as an acrobatic vehicle. But soon, Sylvester’s contortions as the wheel spins in a dizzying variety of directions achieve the pinnacle of athleticism.
But sometimes motion isn’t necessary at all for a circus athlete to impress. Take the pairing of Natalia Pestova and Alexander Pestov who materialize out of a pile of the show’s spooky white-clad zombie creatures to stage an act called “Statue.” Which precisely describes it.
Clad in minimal, beige costumes, this smoothly-muscled pair slowly, inexorably transforms, Pilobulus-like, into various angles and combined shapes. The pair’s athleticism is astonishing in its understatement, but clearly combines ballet, yoga, and rigorous strength training to create tableaux of astonishing grace that require—almost paradoxically—brute strength to deploy. The act achieves a climax as Ms. Pestova hoists the much larger Mr. Pestov into the air—a completely unexpected development.
Other acts are distinctive in their own special ways. Anna Ostapenko’s hand-balancing sequence mirrors the Pestovs’ silent grace, as does Christy Shelper’s “cloud swing” aerial routine. Other aerial artists also excel, performing in hoops and intricate “Spanish web” intertwinings while aloft.
In a break from this mostly aerial display, a quartet of Chinese performers juggle giant yo-yos — they look like very large iterations of the old-fashioned “spoolie” hair curling devices — by flipping them from strings whisked back and forth by a pair of sticks.
The finale of the show—the community of imagination as it were—is like a chorus of acrobatics as a large troupe of performers who hail from the various countries of the old Soviet Union flip each other into the air in a dizzying and dangerous routine.
The various acts are punctuated by the appearance of Voki Kalfayan, a very contemporary clown who picks hapless audience members out of the audience and brings them onstage to serve as designated victims of his warped sense of humor. Young ladies appear to be his primary target, and he ogles them shamelessly which will not endear him to the feminists in the crowd. Nonetheless, opening night’s female victims were good sports and, happily, dished back what was thrown at them, making the nonsense even funnier.
Quidam, while not as spectacular as some of this company’s productions, is a good, entertaining show. It seems particularly geared to appeal to fans of Cirque du Soleil productions in general. For this reviewer, the tone seems a little dark for the kiddies. But that said, a little two- or three-year old who sat behind us happily mimicked the weird vocals of Benoit Jutras’ eerie graveyard of a musical score all evening long. You never know.
Quidam runs thru Nov 20, 2011 at Verizon Center, 601 F Street NW, Washington, DC.
Produced by Cirque du Soleil
Directed by Franco Dragone
Reviewed by: Terry Ponick
Running time: 3 hours, 10 minutes including one 20-minute intermission.