Cirque du Soleil goes steampunk in Kurios – Cabinet of Curiosities, its latest show to land at Sam Houston Race Park. As its acrobats take flight and crazy mechanical, steam-driven characters dance about inside the blue and yellow big top, the whole production transports audiences back to a technological wondrous time that only ever existed in human imagination.
For those not up on their European cultural and aristocratic history, Cabinets of Curiosities were collection rooms where kings, queens and emperors kept their objects of natural history or scientific oddities of the time period. In later eras, these wonder rooms would become more like private proto-museums, or in the hands of men like P.T. Barnum, galleries of the strange and beautifully grotesque.
Kurios writer and director Michel Laprise takes that wonder room concept and gives it a decidedly Cirque du Soleil spin, tumble and somersault. No doubt the majority of Houston Cirque fans don’t come to back to the towering sun tents on an almost annual basis for a complex plot tying the acts together. Nevertheless, Kurios does contain a charming, if slight, narrative thread binding together within one story all the bodies soaring through midair.
Curiouser and Curiouser
According to the Kurios synopsis, a Seeker, who seemed more like a benevolent mad scientist to me, discovers a hidden world within his curio cabinet as those curiosities mechanically and magically come to life. Yes, that’s probably just an excuse for costume designer Philippe Guillotel to go all steampunk, with the occasional undersea-punk, on the performers and audience. The characters inhabiting the Kurios world include an accordion man, a telegraph woman and a master of ceremonies, Mr Microcosmos, who looks a bit like a submarine hatch, and contains an intuitive other self within, Mini Lili, played by Rima Hadchiti, one of the smallest people in the world, and in this show, also one of the most elegant.
With the establishment of these types of Victorian, Jules Verne/H.G Wells motifs, along with abundant sprinklings of Barnum panache, the main aerial, juggling, balancing and contortion acts then all get their time on stages to do the usual, Cirque out-of-this world stuff.
As always, Cirque artists don’t defy gravity as much as engage in playful, romantic relationships with gravity. They flirt, play hard-to-get, passionately dance with and finally embrace the universal force that attracts bodies to each other. Audiences will naturally have their own favorite scenes of human transcendence in the show, but personally I’m a one-born-every-minute sucker for the flying acts.
My pick for most fun mixed with awe had to be “Acro Net” where a school of sea creatures, instead of getting caught in a net spanning the stage, use it to bounce, swim and dive into the air. Then one of the most lovely of the midair performances came near the end of the show as two acrobats, costumed as conjoined twins, take hold of aerial straps to be lifted into the air, then separated so they can soar and dance as individuals, yet still fly together high above the stage.
One of the most unique of the non-acrobatic acts in Kurios–at least in my experience of other Cirque productions–is “Theater of Hands,” a hand puppet comic performance using real hands as characters with the whole interactive story projected onto a giant hot air balloon. One act that was especially popular with the group of kids sitting behind me was a silly invisible mini-circus within the Cirque, which also kept to the retro-futuristic atmosphere of the show.
One word of warning about the Sam Houston Race Park venue. While part of the thrill of going to a Cirque du Soleil show is knowing all that chaotic whimsy of each performance has been precisely structured, rehearsed and timed to the last second, this was not true of the parking situation when I attended a Saturday night performance early in the show’s run. Unless the parking wait time has been resolved since then, I’d advise arriving more than 30 minutes before showtime.
While filled with beautiful and fun curiosities, Kurios doesn’t break the Cirque specimen mold, but for fans of the company that’s no doubt a good thing, as the creative and performing artists continue to prove that in this jaded world there are still wonders to behold and inspire us.
Kurios – Cabinet of Curiosities runs at Sam Houston Race Park under the Big Top through May 21.