Lord of the Rings

Ping Su is balancing on her left foot on a slack wire about five feet above the stage. There are half a dozen bowls resting on her head and she's got another one poised on her right foot. From the look of it she intends to kick that bowl atop the stack. The wire is the width of my pinky. And while Ping Su has already ridden a unicycle, juggled four rings, and executed a full split, all in midair, I'm finding common ground in metaphor: I mean, in some sense at least, how many of us haven't stood in front of strangers, balanced on one foot on a thin slack wire?

The volume of cultural noise right now--from Net excess to news that KAREs--sounds like a CIA experiment in 12-tone cacophony. This is the right time for a circus. Not the kind with abused animals, carnival barking and fez-filled mini-cars, but something for the post-Sega set, more along the lines of Cirque Berzerk, which is premiering in the Jeune Lune theater.

Ed Finley believes in the appeal of a circus of skilled performers, like those found in Europe. "Cirque du Soleil is a $23 million dollar production," he says "and they play six American cities." Minneapolis isn't one of them. So Finley created Cirque Berzerk in that model, recruiting acrobats, plate spinners, contortionists, and the like. He discovered his first act on the floor of a Las Vegas casino: an Australian man who juggled his family with his feet. After booking them on the NBA halftime circuit, Finley was flooded with 400 tapes from jugglers, mimes ("they don't play so well in the NBA"), and the odd poodle act. Finley is passionate about the artistry of what he's termed "21st-century vaudeville"--to the extent of taking a dive with his own money to stage it.

There are 11 acts here, by 14 performers, and all of them are foreigners. Larisa Ivanova, a Russian, slinks across the stage in a lamé leotard cut up to her hips. Then she lies on her back on a modified silver tripod and juggles with her feet. Frenchman Charly Charles, 56, pedals a 10-inch bicycle with an audience member perched on his shoulders. Lili Zhu, from China, piles a stack of seven chairs and two benches on top of four glass bottles, on top of a table. Then she performs handstands from the summit.

We also have the family acts. The Chin Brothers (who sure don't look related) spin plates. One balances three raw eggs on a stick on his nose; one juggles seven badminton rackets. They never cease smiling. Petr Soroutchan (married to the alluring foot-juggler) tosses his 8-year-old daughter Valeria though a vigorous routine of aerial gymnastics. He acts as the uneven bars; she performs a one-armed hand stand on his uplifted arm. The Ashton Family's routine is (yawn) more of the same, except this father lies on his back and flips the wife and kids with his feet. One wonders if the back of a hairbrush is applied to get these kids to behave so well.

What's at work in all these acts is an obsessive mastery of the seemingly impossible. There is the sense that our lives follow vectors that we can neither predict nor control, and television celebrates this. We silently hope for ski-jump wipe-outs and subcontinental typhoons, catastrophes of image and image alone. Yet in a live theater the audience feels a compulsory empathy with the performers. They're a few feet in front of us, playing out our interior scripts through isolated tasks. Valentin, a male contortionist, rests chest-down on a rotating platform, bending his legs backward so far that his butt hits his head. He can appear as legs without a body, or as a torso without a head. The symbolism of an ability like that is as compelling as it is abstract.

Ultimately there is something sad about a circus--a detached admiration that never crosses over into envy. Cesar, a Peruvian mime, wanders the stage with a suitcase of sight gags, looking for a seat. He can't find one. There is a barrier between the audience and the performers and it's made of spinning plates, foot-juggling tripods and 10-inch bicycles.

The Minnesota Opera's stylish revival of Mozart's Don Giovanni (from the 1988 season) takes another tack against the winds of entertainment overload, employing smart sets to manipulate tone toward the contemplative. The story--that of the libertine Don Giovanni (Robert Hayward) and his many transgressions--unfolds in a horseshoe of fragmented mirrors. The further away the performers stand from these walls, the more their reflections assume funhouse proportions. So while Giovanni is the iniquitous antihero, compromising Donna Anna ( Martile Rowland) and murdering her father, the Commendatore (Valentin Peytchinov), none of the characters is exactly as she appears.

Donna Anna toys with her expectant suitor, deferring their love with interminable mourning. Donna Elvira (Wendy Nielsen), one of Giovanni's former lovers, is righteous only to the extent that she is spurned. Giovanni's manservant, Leporello (Gordon Holleman), gleefully keeps a list of his boss's 1,800 sexual conquests; he lacks the will to sin, not the inclination. Paired in their credulousness and suspicion are Zerlina and Masetto (Elisabeth Comeaux, Merle Fristad), the bride whom Giovanni attempts to seduce and her groom. Self-exiled from these petty hypocrites, Don Giovanni has always struck me as something of an existentialist. What separates him is his willingness to do the whole evil. When all his enemies converge upon him at the end of the first act, daggers drawn, Don rises from his knees and walks past them, laughing.

And Don Giovanni is a comedy of sorts, which the staging by director James Robinson captures skillfully. (Having watched a scant dozen operas, I'll leave an evaluation of the vocal performances to surer ears, while offering the observation that no one has particularly distinguished nor embarrassed herself.) Only in the closing moments, after the dead Commendatore accepts Giovanni's brazen dinner invitation in person, does the tone begin to shift. When the statue shows, Don has already eaten for two. "Repent," the Commendatore says, "change your ways. This is your last moment." Don Giovanni walks upstage to the precipice of an inclined platform, turns to face us, and takes a half-gainer to hell. Isn't opera grand? CP

Cirque Berzerk runs at Theatre de la Jeune Lune through March 17 (333-6200); Don Giovanni plays at Ordway Music Theatre through March 17 (224-4222).

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