Photos by Larry Green.
Orpheus: A Silent Circus
Written and conceived by Eli Keel
Amberly Simpson, Head choreographer
Anne Boock Miller, Co-Choreographer
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2017 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Stage a play in an aerialist’s gymnasium and right away you are challenging the audience’s expectations. In his second original script combining theatre, dance and aerial acrobatics, Eli Keel has developed a much more satisfying amalgam than his previous collaboration with Suspend, A Tale of Love and Tarot. As much as I liked that show, Orpheus: A Silent Circus is a much more sophisticated and narratively complex theatrical entity.
An update of the myth of Orpheus and his love for Eurydice refashioned as a mélange of silent movie motifs and contemporary dance, Keel upends audience expectations by switching the gender of the two lovers, so that Eurydice is a man (Braden McCampbell), and Orpheus is a woman (Megan Massie) although she dresses as a man, a diminutive, Chaplinesque figure whose femininity is further deemphasized by being surrounded by the strong, sensual bodies of the remaining cast, all but one of whom are women.
The adaptation is fairly loose, more of an interpretation really, and the unusual blend of disciplines works beautifully to connect to the audience, but it also establishes just enough remove to evoke the weight and resonance of myth.
Dance dominates the piece, and the choreography is supple and for the most part flows organically enough that one has to look sharp at times to keep up. Massie keeps up but she and McCampbell are somewhat more grounded by design, leaving the characters of gods and other supernatural creatures to take flight among the silks and rings while the lovers remain largely earthbound. But that doesn’t restrict their ability to move, and the duo worked through the choreography with skill.
Massie is the emotional center of the piece, rendering Orpheus as innocent, gay, and graceful in her transitions. A veteran of Kentucky Shakespeare, where language is crucially important, seeing her work entirely without it felt fresh and spontaneous. McCampbell also did fine work, and their tender pas de deux, in which they become intertwined in long silk fabrics, was a lovely highlight.
Among the movement ensemble, Amberly Simpson stood out for her vivid depiction of the evil Hades, while Kara Hancock’s turn as Tiresias included bravura routine in the silks. There were instances when there was so much dynamic movement that character moments got a little lost, but the good work of Massie and McCampbell carry the day, and these moments were given an appropriate spotlight.
The music was all piano except for notable use of organ pieces, and all of the choices felt right. George Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” served beautifully as a love theme for Orpheus and Eurydice. The mix of popular and classical compositions both reinforced the silent film aesthetic while also establishing a tone of dread and portent as the tragedy unfolds.
Sets were non-existent, and rightfully so in this material; the various apparatus were only augmented by a street lamp and a platform, the bodies in motion filling the space with sufficient grace, power, and suggestion. The necessity of securing some of the equipment before it can be safely moved away while the performance is occurring is a bit of a challenge, but the ensemble never breaks character while doing so, and the staging ingenuously incorporates such tasks, such as having Orpheus look upon these moments with astonishment, all a part of the fantastical experience of the underworld.
Orpheus matches any traditional definition of “circus” in limited terms, but we clearly exist in a moment of seminal transition for what “circus” means to society now and moving into the future. Companies like Suspend Productions are bringing unique theatrical experiences to audiences while shedding new light on the traditional circus arts.
Orpheus: A Silent Circus
May 12 & 13 @ 7:30 pm
May 13 @ 2:00 pm
Suspend Performing Arts
721 East Washington Street
Louisville, Kentucky 40202
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of PUBLIC on WXOX-FM 97.1/ ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.