Babes in Arms

Montreal's biggest cultural export after Celine Dion: Cirque du Soleil

Montreal's biggest cultural export after Celine Dion: Cirque du Soleil

A caveat emptor to those planning on attending storyteller Leslye Orr's The Mother-Hood Show at the Bryant-Lake Bowl: The production begins with graphic footage of childbirth. Now, I'm not especially sensitive to such imagery. Being a child of the Seventies, I recall watching a PBS documentary series that followed a woman through her pregnancy and into the operating room, pressing the camera alarmingly close to the compressed head of the infant as it squeezed out from an iodine-soaked birth canal. Such footage is familiar. Nonetheless, Orr's intro left me picking at my black-bean burger, considering the ketchup I had so unwisely slathered atop the meal, wondering if the Oops Theatre would dare pair dining and entertainment in such a way. I doubt that Pump Boys and Dinettes will anytime soon open with video footage of dilated vulvas, but if they do, a word of advice: Go light on the ketchup.

This past Friday's Mother-Hood Show had a disappointingly small turnout. Orr herself confessed from the stage that mid-August is not the best time for mounting a production, but the dozen or so patrons who chose theatergoing over rollerblading proved to be enthusiastic. Orr engenders vocal reactions in her audience: Three women seated in the front row took it upon themselves to act as a sort of Southern Baptist "amen corner," hooting and calling out comments whenever the spirit moved them, which proved to be often. At the start of the show, Orr leaned forward to speak to the audience in a weary, conspiratorial voice. "When you become a mother, you lose your short-term memory," Orr said.

"Yes!" cried out the three women.

"When you become a mother," Orr added, "you lose your short-term memory."

"What?" the women asked.

Orr looked puzzled. "What did I just say?" she inquired. At this, the women detonated into fits of giggling. They would continue like this throughout the production, alternating between call-and-response ebullience and gales of laughter as Orr recounted the traumas of parenting, some general, some specific to Orr herself. Certainly, Orr's amen corner could not have shared her difficulties in breast-feeding. "I have one eye," Orr explains, "and no depth perception"--then she mimes her fumbling attempts at pressing a baby's head to her breast. Orr's description of her failed endeavor to brush a bee from her baby's forehead brought sympathetic peals of laughter, even when Orr told of snatching up a palm leaf and smacking her child full across the face with it.

In fact, as Orr stomps across the Bryant-Lake Bowl's tiny stage, now cluttered with children's toys, her storytelling takes on the gleeful sadism that sometimes creeps into children's literature (think of Heinrich Hoffmann's Struwwelpeter or Hilaire Belloc's Cautionary Verses for Children and Mature Adults, which includes the story of Henry King, "who chewed bits of String, and was early cut off in Dreadful Agonies"). Orr, in character as a prim Southern matron whose battle with hardened chunks of her children's feces have caused her to be wrestled to the floor by security at a local community meeting, describes scheming to plow her car through the wall of the nursery and over her sleeping children. The amen corner squealed with pleasure and threw their hands together, presumably having had similar thoughts about their own ragamuffins.

The PBS documentary of my childhood always ended at the moment of childbirth, with the new mother holding her wet, pinkish, wheezing, wrinkled infant in her arms and weeping with joy. Orr's storytelling, vivid and wicked as always, makes it clear that this was a fine place for the documentary to end. Had it continued home with the infant, into a world of tantrums, breast pumps, sleepless nights, and mothers who preserve their mental health only by fantasizing about murdering their children--well, my guess is that there would be far fewer children nowadays.


Instead, there are tikes aplenty: Just look to the Cirque du Soleil's production of Dralion. Under their massive blue-and-yellow-striped tent on the outer edge of downtown Minneapolis, children fill the seats, their tiny legs dangling without touching the ground, their faces locked in an uncertain expression as they watch squat clowns in black suits pucker their lips and chase after audience members.

One can never be sure how a child will respond to a circus--especially one as fruity as this. Giant, Oriental-styled dog-lion-dragon beasties--the titular Dralions--take to the stage, swaying noiselessly as a man in a black gown sings wordless, Enya-style melodies in a castrato countertenor, and dozens of tiny Chinese women take turns leaping onto one another's backs until they have built themselves into a 40-foot tower. Some very young children burst into spontaneous laughter at this, while others press tight fists over their eyes and sob loudly. It's all right--very young children respond the same way to vacuum cleaners and certain older relatives. Sometimes it doesn't hurt to scare the little scamps. (When I have children, I plan to take them to the circus whenever possible. Then again, I plan to teach them how to play ukulele and sing old-time country-and-Western songs in three-part harmony, so they might wind up living at the circus.)

Even at its most cheesy and bombastic--and Cirque du Soleil slips across the line into overwrought bombast with startling speed--Dralion represents modern circus at its most exciting. When other circuses seem like an act of nostalgia, presenting the same dozen acts in the same setting as though frozen in the year 1932, Cirque du Soleil presses forward. (This includes shuttling immigrant labor around the globe to the company's seven shows, and soliciting corporate sponsorship from Lincoln, whose new models flank the big top.) They combine the physically astonishing with the technologically unlikely in a way that has never been seen previously: A massive metallic spider scuttles onto the stage, pausing only long enough for a performer to explode out of its back, as acrobats in white tights scamper up and down the walls like frenzied cockroaches. Even the lighting crew participates in the spectacle: They appear to have been welded into their spotlights, dangling 60 feet in the air like the living embodiment of some nightmarish H.R. Giger painting.

If your child responds to this overflow of visual stimuli with gleeful chortling, you can congratulate yourself on your excellent child-rearing skills. If, instead, they curl up into a ball and sob in terror--well, that offers pleasures of its own, doesn't it?