Sunday, July 15, 2012

Why Ovo Isn't a Good Piece of Theatre or a Quality Cirque du Soleil Production]

Even the artwork is uninspiring [Source: Cirque Tribune].
As a Cirque du Soleil aficionado who has spent thousands of dollars on the brand, I feel I'm more than entitled to say that the 2009 touring show Ovo is the worst Cirque du Soleil production in the world. For years I have stuck up for Cirque du Soleil when theatre buffs scoffed at me after I've suggested Cirque productions possess a high level of theatrical and artistic value, but in this case anyone who claims Cirque is a soulless machine is completely right. Ovo is nothing short of a theatrical debacle, having very few worthwhile elements combined with some of the worst directing I've ever seen in a professional multi-million dollar production. Ovo is an ignominious artistic failure, lacking the exquisite sophistication, attention to detail and magic that has distinguished Cirque du Soleil as an avant-garde theatrical entertainment empire of the highest quality. It is not at all theatrically engaging, stimulating or special, and is completely undeserving of being associated with the Cirque du Soleil brand.

Written, choreographed and directed (terms that are increasingly more dubious than the last) by Brazilian choreographer Deborah Colker, Ovo tells a broad story of a colony of insects who are preparing to have a feast and dance-off. Amidst this wacky world of insects is the heart-felt story of love, illustrated though a trio of reoccurring clowns comprised of a bumbling patriarch, a ladybug, and (by far the worst) an insufferable stupid blue male called 'Flipo' who brings the egg to the colony (which subsequently just deflates with a schizophrenic light-fest and a tinny rendition of Beethoven's 5th . . . spoilers!) and treats us to a cracker of a performance by running around the tent screaming "OOOOOKAYYY! PUP-A-WAPA-PA!! WOOOOW OOOOOOOOVOOOOOO!" for what feels like 90 minutes. While the show still boasts a degree of Cirque's incredible level of athleticism in its feats and acrobatics, Ovo flops because it just goes nowhere. There is no unifying concept or structure to the show, and to simply state that the whole show falls under the umbrella of 'insects' is very broad (lazy) of the creative team. The show traipses around flouting incredible acrobatics but divorces itself from Cirque's typical aesthetic, with the majority of the show failing to uphold any attempt at a mise-en-scène, utilising stupid costumes and banal music, and failing to engage the audience emotionally due to an absence of conflict and drama that does not imprint any lasting thoughts or emotion to reflect on.

The three main characters/clowns, and some of the costumes
which take insect features too literally [Source: USC Annenberg].
The acts and acrobatics of the show are naturally the main focus of most audience members in Cirque du Soleil, and it's true that the cast are very talented and a couple of moments stood out in terms of interesting feats. The Foot Juggling performed by a chorus of tiny Asian artists attracted a huge amount of applause, juggling giant watermelon slices and bits of corn with their toes, and the Diabolo routine performed by Tony Frébourg was flawlessly executed, his furiously spinning routine marred only by the obnoxious music. The Slackwire act performed by Li Wei was probably the best act when it came to bringing all the elements together, and also boasts the most interesting song in the show. On a whole the acts are solid but there are also some rancid acts that should never be used in a professional show. The Acrosport act was very poorly staged, the group not managing to command the attention in terms of utilising the space. The Creatura Manipulation was just fucking stupid. I can't believe that's actually considered an act and is actually in the show. Legs scene? Disgusting wallowing with no purpose to anything. What's maddening is that while the artists are talented, acts that are equally impressive can be seen in other circuses (such as Circus Oz) for about a fraction of the price. 

The aerial acts were of excellent quality, but from there the production fell down a dark chasm when it came to other elements. The choreography is hilariously bad. The cast are forced to scamper and plod across the stage waving their asses around, flopping their limbs in various directions and prancing all over the place. I genuinely can not comprehend what I saw, considering that the director is also a choreographer. It's just inconsiderable that such a prolific figure like Colker could create such shit that results in a hybrid of a pre-school nativity production and the Macarena. The integration of choreography into the acts was pretty much non-existent, and when it was there it was a disaster and I felt was embarrassed for the artists.

Gringo Cardia's set was somewhat inspired when it comes to the design of the spider webs, and there are these two gigantic flowers which bloom on stage during acts but then disappear and do nothing. Eric Champoux's lighting wasn't anything notable and added nothing special to the overall look of the show. It looked nice in some scenes but whenever the act needed a more sophisticated set up it just seemed to not do anything special. The costumes are clunky and the inspiration of the insects was taken way too literally. Unlike Cirque's usual esoteric and abstract approaches to costumes, such as the exquisite appropriation of Oriental designs in (2004) or the Gypsy inspired costumes of Varekai (2001), Ovo's interpretation of insects is far too literal. Liz Vandal's variegated designs are too outlandish, merging together the emphasised grotesque features of insects with a bombastic pallet of colours. If you're irrationally impressed with costumes that smash a bunch of colours together and call it art, then hop aboard the bullshit-mobile!

Berna Cepas music (?) is hands down the most disappointing and worst aspect of the show. The idiosyncrasies of Cirque's music, which include a level of complexity comprised of memorable tunes, exquisite and ethereal lyrics, and the amalgamation of different musical genres from around the world, are all absent from Ovo's score. Cirque invited me to review the soundtrack for Ovo in 2010, and criticisms were met by this response from the composer:
Sebastian Savard plays the violin in Ovo. The band are dressed as
cockroaches. Not sure what the message here is
- the music never dies? [Source:  All Things String].
“My goal, in essence, is to improvise musical mechanisms. My juxtaposition is the only one of its kind, due in part to the inclusion of highly-intellectual movement-commissions, with a hint of so-called 'pitch-solos'. I never sense styles, despite the fact that any pattern or performance can be, and has been interpreted as a rather dodecaphonically-melodic set of 'resonance-rhythms'. Except in rare cases (for example, when you are morphing a particularly neo-Romantic set of interactions), contemporary composers of 'triad-music' should avoid the use of themes. Unlike traditional orchestrations, I aim to develop conflicts, including a highly tonal vision that recontextualises all notions of similar fanfares.” - Berna Ceppas (via 'alibaba', The Cirque Tribune 2011)
From the ashes of that self-indulgent wank comes a soundscape that consists of annoying, skittering rhythms and snoozy tunes that resemble generic Brazilian chill elevator drones, played on dreadful synths that sounded as though they were summoned directly out of the 80s. In essence the songs sounded like a mixture of 'Girl from Impanima' and the soundtrack of 'Virtual Street Fighter', and ultimately it resembles a prehistoric homage to Barry Manilow's 'Copacobana'. In terms of composition, the score is very pedestrian, with the compositions settling on an unfulfilling melody or hook which repeats over and over, never evolving or developing any kind of climax. I sympathise for the musicians (who are, as usual, of world-class quality), trying to make the best of their shitty material while being dressed up in disgusting outfits that I suppose represent cockroaches. Singer Marie-Claude Marchand has a gorgeous crooning voice but she is under-utilised, and when used there's nothing of substance. The lyrics are insipid and could have been written by five year-olds. The main libretto of the show is the enigmatic “blarbarlagrgabaga”, “zoo zoo zoo zoo zum” and “I love you” which seem to be uttered on every vocal interjection, but alternating between 849037 different languages. Although it could be argued that the dreadful music accompanies the boring staging of the acts appropriately, the music served purely as background music and does not engage or stimulate as a stand alone product.

Despite what most audiences think, merely performing a sequence of tricks does not warrant a good Cirque du Soleil act. Although almost all the acts within the show are technically proficient, in terms of its value as a theatrical work Ovo is nothing. It lacks any thought out presentation in terms of how the act is integrated into the mise-en-scène and it's just a selection of circus acts. The core flaw of Ovo is that there is no point to the show. There is no subtext, underlying message or moral to take away after the performance – the show merely entertains its audience for the duration and has no effect beyond. Consequentially, Ovo can be summed up as people in bug costumes doing tricks. The casual consumer may claim that the extra theatrical elements are unnecessary when it comes to Cirque du Soleil since they're primarily interested in acrobatics, but that's an oxymoron because the reason that Cirque is distinguished from other circuses is because of their initial avant-garde approach to fuse the circus with theatre. Cirque, under their initial direction of Franco Dragone, completely repositioned the presentation of circus through the fusing of vividly illustrated stories into a series of feats. This character-driven, story based theatrical approach warranted Cirque's gradual escalation of ticket price into the hundreds of dollars, despite other circuses offering a similar level of athletic finesse – this was the unique appeal that enticed audiences. To forgive Ovo for omitting the key aspects that distinguish Cirque du Soleil from the rest of the world is not acceptable since Cirque du Soleil productions are not renown for shoving a bunch of acts on stage and labelling it a theatrical experience. But that's all Ovo is - a sequence of acts that thoroughly entertain the audience through skill but lack any artistic and theatrical value.

Wacky colours and 'family fun' excuse Ovo from
 failing in every other aspect theatrically [Source: About.com].
In the end any criticism to Ovo is irrelevant, because the majority of consumers are only interested in the acrobatic value of the performance. I tear violently at my hair when audiences disregard the theatrical element and just associate the complete Cirque du Soleil experience as people in CRAZY COSTUMES performing WICKED FLIPS N SHIT!, but Ovo regrettably just solidifies this dismal interpretation of the brand. My thoughts go out to the wonderfully talented crew that have to withstand this obscure, shallow, and stupid material every day. While it maintains Cirque's image as an acrobatic superpower, in terms of theatre Ovo is garbage. Although I have no doubt that audiences will say they enjoy Ovo over shows such as Quidam (1996) and Alegría (1994) because it's more 'fun' and 'less serious', it falls short of the Cirque du Soleil greats, and will never compare to the company's best works or considered a notable theatre experience. It omits the key elements that make a good Cirque show, including stimulating music, engaging theatricality, proper choreography and the whole overall aesthetic. It sorely lacks the wonderful, surrealistic imagery that Cirque is renown for and is not something I would ever recommend anyone seeing, especially at the ludicrously expensive prices that Cirque demand.

You can't just stick an egg on stage and call it Cirque du Soleil, but that's exactly what's happened. Ovo is painfully uninspired, a generic and substandard manufactured show which draws its success out of the image of being 'family fun' – and, somehow, that makes it okay for it to be an artistic failure on every other element to the production. I blame the creative team under the woeful (or non-existent) direction of Colker, who clearly either did not understand or did not care what a true Cirque du Soleil show is comprised of.

I don't have a problem with people enjoying Ovo, and if it gets people more interested in Cirque, then I guess it's done some good. What I can't stand is people claiming that this production is a good example of a Cirque du Soleil show, or a good piece of theatre. Ovo will not create discussion or inspire change. It is not innovative, it is not special, and it is not deserving of being associated with Cirque du Soleil. The greatest mentor I've known told me that the best theatre is an experience that creates and poses the questions – Ovo does nothing of the sort, and is just a gigantic theatrical failure.

Tickets for Cirque du Soleil's Ovo range from $79-$410, and is showing until September 2nd. Duration of 2 hours and 30 minutes (including a 20 minute intermission). Book by visiting the Ovo Official Website or through Ticketmaster. Children under 2 are admitted free.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Thoughts on La Voix Humaine

What I love most about this marketing is that each of the women are featured on one promotional item - Zink is on the poster, Field is on the programme, and the Rotem is on the flyer - nice job La Boite Marketing! [Source: XS Entertainment].
There's something maddeningly alluring about Motherboard Productions' La Voix Humaine at La Boite Theatre's Roundhouse. Dave Sleswick's surreal adaptation of the original French script is inspired, with a trio of gorgeous women, intense visuals and projections and the best sound design I've heard in live theatre.

The premise of La Voix Humaine is that a woman is engaging a series of phone-calls to her ex-lover on the evening preceding his marriage to another woman. The agonizing conversation with her unseen and unheard lover is wrought with interruptions among the phone-lines, including old-fashioned crackling, others listening in on the line, and suddenly being cut off. The latter is what the the woman is constantly apprehensive of - she does not know if it is the unreliable phone-line kicking her off, or if her ex-lover has hung up.

Lawrence English, have my first born, or at least pick up some awards for this. The sound design was incredible - in terms of theatre in Brisbane this work is unparallelled, and with the exception of one song choice this design was perfect. English's vision for sound is captivating, recreating everything that can go wrong with a phone conversation (echos, crackling, delays, dial tones, often done through an impressive live mixing of effects) and pairing it with some menacing metallic screeches to evoke a sense of claustrophobia. The atmospheric score complimented the production perfectly, and while there's no discernible theme or melody, each segment enhances the movement on stage. This adaptation is also phenomenally rich in its use of visuals to develop both narrative and character, and Markwell Presents' (Brad Jennings and Steven Maxwell) also craft projections which contrast lights and shadows to emphasize the absence of the unseen lover.

The trio of women (Erica Field, Noa Rotem and Liesel Zink) are equally stunningly beautiful and talented, and their performance as an ensemble is incredible. Their sensitivity and response to each other is electric, and when required their movement and discipline is perfectly uniform. The honestly and hopeless resignation communicated through the eyes of all three are flawing, being instructed at the beginning that the woman on the phone isn't bitter - she is in love. Rotem delivers an impressive third of the script in Hebrew, and her contrast between the woman's calmness then a sudden fervor of distress is breathtaking (although most of the time I heard her speak Hebrew I couldn't stop thinking about Panda). Zink shows such emotion in her harrowing wails when she learns she has been abandoned, and her violent choreography to communicate the erratic nature of the message being sent through the telephone wires is beautiful.

One of my favourite moments I've seen on stage all year was when her ex-lover asks the woman if she kind find her gloves. Fields sits on stage quietly, then retreats off stage briefly. She enters with the gloves on, and creates a beautifully forlorn moment by closing her eyes and rubbing the gloves together (creating a friction to make them warm), pressing them to her face, and smiling. She then softly replies that she can't find them.
The ingenious element of the production was that all the elements showed a commonality of the unreliable phone line. Sleswick manages to weave the motif into the sound, movements, and the visuals. Even translation selections of Rotem's dialogue is often left out, and when there the subtitles are occasionally difficult to distinguish - this may have been a problem of the material but the break down in communication was felt even in the audience.

I got warned that you could only possibly enjoy La Voix Humaine at La Boite's Roundhouse if you were a woman and/or were deeply in love at one stage in life. I don't think I'm either, but I thoroughly enjoyed the show, and the more I think about it the more I appreciate it. A couple of people commented that they didn't care for it at all, but I think enjoying the piece largely depends on how much you're invested in it. It's intensely confronting to see elements of love that most people would experience at some point in a relationship in the woman, as agonized as her broken soul is. A lot of theatre you can emotionally distance yourself from, but in order to engage fully with La Voix Humaine, you need to be willing to confront something very private and very real. To engage fully with La Voix Humaine in a profound manner is a harrowing, albeit brilliant and evocative experience. Emotionally, it expresses the thematic concerns of the nature and meaning of love and its demise, and the polarized choice between obsession and acceptance. It's dark, brooding and brilliant. You must be emotionally prepared for that experience, otherwise casting the show aside or dismissing it as pompous experimental staging would be easy.

La Voix Humaine is a beautiful piece of theatre. Sleswick's inspired new adaptation challenges the conventional idea about moving on between love, obsession and acceptance. With an incredible sound design and visuals, led by an ensemble of incredible women, La Voix Humaine invites the audience into a harrowing, but brilliant and thought-provoking experience.

Tickets for Motherboard Productions and La Boite Indie's La Voix Humaine are $22-$28, and is showing at La Boite Theatre Company Roadhouse Theater until July 14th. Duration of approximately 80 minutes. Book by visiting La Boite's website.