Theater review: Totem

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Go up Hwy 49 to the wondrous Grand Chapiteau out on the Silver Parking Lot at Charlotte Motor Speedway and you’ll learn the big difference between a concepted circus and a scripted Broadway musical. Tickets for Cirque du Soleil’s new tale of human evolution, acrobats, and beach bums, delivered in the universal languages of music and gibberish, top out at $225 for a premium front-row seat. That’s a mere pittance compared to the $65 million lesson that Julie Taymor and the backers of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark are learning in New York, where the web-slinger’s official opening is currently lagging 12 days behind last week’s American Premiere of Cirque’s Totem.

Two lessons, really: story counts in a Broadway musical – and it should make sense.

Cirque’s Totem purports to have a story, but it’s really more about acrobatic daring, visual excitement, and mythic evocation – with a musical pulse. The aerialist who descends from the crown of the Chapiteau at the beginning of the show might look like the Silver Surfer, but if he were, he’d have to follow the example of all comic book heroes and have an epic serial adventure. Instead, he’s Crystal Man in Cirque’s iconography, representing the life force, so dropping in every now and again on a beam of dazzling light will be quite enough from him.

If you’ve forgotten what Quidam and Varekai were about when those gibberish Cirque titles hit the Queen City, you’ve only failed the test if it isn’t graded on a curve. Nobody remembers. Or cares. So Totem, with a meaningful title and a memorable story arc, is quite a breakthrough even if it doesn’t hang together.

The primordial ooze in this evolution of man is a huge mass of congealed Wheatena that fills most of the stage with a puffy mound. Nebulously, it represents a giant turtle that symbolized origins for many ancient civilizations. This turtle is too big to crawl away, but a few amphibians and lizards pass through the chinks of its shell, saving the mythic mound from evolutionary inertia. More identifiable is the reedy marsh that lurks continuously in the background. Monkeys, cavemen, Native Americans, a ringmaster, a scientist, cosmonauts, unicyclists, a beach bum, and a businessman wielding his cell phone come or go into this sticky thicket, often on boats that come rowing in over Étienne Boucher’s lighting wizardry. Gets a laugh every time.

That’s symptomatic of Totem from beginning to end. It works. Every Kym Barrett costume design strikes a deep-down primal nerve – or a funnybone – very much like a Taymor extravaganza when she’s at her Lion King best. The Amerindian hoop dancers, twirling or spread-eagling five feathered hoops at the same time, aren’t taking any breathtaking risks or initiating us into profound tribal lore. Yet each time they appear, early in Act 1 and deep into Act 2 just before the exquisite Indian Prince and Princess roller-skating/mating ritual, they ground the entire production in its primal roots.

Outside the realm of Spider-Man, sheer beauty can dispel confusion. Our Ringmaster with his illuminated tophat shimmers with Magritte mystery, taking righteous environmentally-conscious umbrage when one of the clowns proves to be a penny-ante polluter. So he transforms himself into a bullfighter? No matter, this flamenco toreador delights us with some of the most amazing stick juggling you’ll ever see. All the divertissements between the acrobats and aerialists were up to the high Cirque standard, but I think the fisherperson clown of indeterminate gender was the best shtick in their illustrious history.

Okay, so I had to go to the Totem website to find out that the five Korean unicyclists tossing and juggling bowls from their feet to their heads somehow represented the wonders of autumn – and aren’t the seasons straying from the point? – but they were astonishing in their intricate precision. The couple on the fixed trapeze were dressed like Pan and the nymph he woos, surely projections of mythic consciousness, performing some jaw-dropping balancing feats as she was alternately repelled by the god or attracted to him.

Admittedly, the climactic “Russian Bars” act celebrates man’s desire to land on his two feet without breaking his head more convincingly than it dramatizes his ages-old desire to escape the laws of gravity and fly. But before they’re shown to be wearing these strikingly irrelevant costumes inspired by the lost civilizations of South America, the troupe arrives on a high-tech ramp that extends toward us from the rear of stage, looking like a crew of cosmonauts in an ultracool black-light effect. After their soaring acrobatics, they exit as cosmonauts in that same black intergalactic light, to the wan sound of a shakuhachi flute.

I hear that Taymor is being canned up on Broadway for her inability to direct – or make sense of – the book she herself wrote. She’d be an absolutely perfect fit with Cirque, a genuine asset. Maybe she could even fix that turd they’re calling a turtle!

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