Theater review by Jenna Scherer. Citi Field (see Off Broadway). By Robert Lepage. Dir. Lepage. With ensemble cast. 2hrs 50mins. One intermission.
If your date ever says, “Hey baby, let’s get nasty like two fake Indians on roller skates,” you’ll know he or she has seen Cirque du Soleil’s Totem. (That’s pronounced to-tem, in case you were thinking of saying it the actual way.) In a routine that’s emblematic of the show as a whole, this wheeled pas de deux is both jaw-droppingly impressive and completely nonsensical.
For this round under the Grand Chapiteau, the Canadian circus empire has recruited theater heavyweight Robert Lepage (who helmed the Met’s recent Ring cycle) to write and direct. Totem is apparently about mankind’s evolution from the primordial ooze, but in between apes and lizards, Lepage has also inexplicably squeezed in beach bums, flamenco dancers, a human mirror ball, and borderline-offensive portrayals of both Native Americans and Italians. There’s also a bearded scientist who may or may not be Charles Darwin—though I’m pretty sure Darwin never juggled multicolored balls of light in a giant funnel.
But no one really comes to a Cirque show for the plot, right? Totem has all the unbelievably proficient acts of human precision and daring that audiences have come to expect. Highlights include a two-person rom-com in miniature that unfolds gorgeously on a single trapeze, a quintet of bowl-juggling unicyclists, and a fiendishly complex ten-person Russian-bar routine. However, there were more than a few mess-ups over the course of the night, and a few cloying clown acts outstayed their welcome.
Totem is certainly a sensory feast, featuring a moving bridge that uncoils like the tail of a giant lizard as well as intricately realized costumes and technical design. But pitched weirdly between The Origin of Species and Mamma Mia!, Lepage’s show fails to raise the artistic bar.—Jenna Scherer