Playwright: Tony Hernandez, Heidi Stillman
At: Lookingglass Theatre Company
Phone: ( 312 ) 337-0665; $20-$58
Runs through: Sept. 25
For close to a decade, Lookingglass Theatre Company—always a highly physical troupe—has worked to integrate circus skills into its characteristic strong story telling. From relatively simple acts of juggling and stilt-walking to more challenging high wire daring-do, the company has applied its skills to various original and adapted works, achieving a synthesis of circus and drama—with astonishing visual impact—in shows such as The Baron in the Trees, La Luna Muda, Hard Times and The Metamorphosis.
With Hephaestus, the circus wing of the company is given full rein to tell a story of the Greek gods. Lookingglass associate artist Tony Hernandez is creator, co-author, co-director and actor who's something of a Jesus look-alike in the title role. Hernandez is connected through marriage alliances to many of the greatest circus families and organizations, among them the Wallendas, Ringling Brothers and Cirque de Soleil, all of which are represented in Hephaestus.
The show is an interesting but odd-duck 70-minute divertissement that, ultimately, doesn't satisfy. One admires the discipline and deep concentration of the artists plying their high-risk trades in a theater seating just 240, but the circus acts are not really integral to the story. I kept waiting for the synthesis to emerge, but it wasn't there. Hephaestus is a string of circus acts united by a thin storyline, narrated by a little girl reading a storybook. There's no dialogue and no real conflict and resolution. Like reading a book with occasional illustrations, the circus acts fix a particular moment or scene in time and space but they don't further the narrative. The decision of Hernandez and co-author/director Heidi Stillman to cast the show with dedicated circus professionals rather than Lookingglass ensemble members meant that actors were replaced by showmen and women.
The circus acts themselves are intriguing and impressive but the closeness of the setting is a give-and-take situation. Gained is a deeper appreciation for the focus and fearlessness necessary for success in the face of real, physical danger; but lost is the glamour and magic that greater distance provides. With the performers sometimes just inches away, the audience sees every quiver, shake, flex and near-miss; the audience sees the performers working. To this observer, the circus is overtly erotic, with men and women in tight and revealing outfits ( or partially naked ) , and with an unabashed glorification of body, strength and sensuous motion. The confined quarters of Hephaestus wreak havoc on eroticism, but they do offer a perhaps-deeper, warts-and-all intimacy.
Still, Hephaestus doesn't fuse circus and theater; it's circus IN a theater, which isn't the same thing. Brian Sidney Bembridge's sophisticated, smoky lighting and a rich, percussive musical score add considerably to the dazzle but not to the drama.