Regional Reviews: Chicago
Hephaestus: A Greek Mythology Circus Tale
The myth of Hephaestus has many variants. As it's told in this production, Hephaestus, the child of Zeus and Hera, is thrown from Mt. Olympus down to Earth because his crippling deformities displease the Gods. The story here is framed by a scene in which a present day young girl, troubled by the offstage sounds of her parents fighting, pulls out her storybook and begins to read the legend to the audience. The story is an effective framework to tie together 90 minutes of most impressive circus acrobatics. Though the acts symbolize the action of the story, this isas the subtitle suggestscircus rather than drama, but circus done with theatrical production values.
Hephaestus was the god of fire and metallurgy. Living on earth, he made fabulous creations of metal. The production is designed in that spirit, with a simple set largely consisting of metallic platforms. An ensemble of gymnasts called "silverguys" is dressed and painted in silver (Brian Sidney Bembridge designed costumes and lighting; Liljana Wallenda-Hernandez designed the costumes). In addition to their gymnastic displays, two perform on huge metal drums and other percussion instruments, extending the metallurgy sensibility even further. It's all set to new age music by Andre Pluess, Josh Horvath and sound designer Ray Nardelli. Picture a classier, artier version of Cirque du Soleilsexy in an entirely tasteful and family-friendly way.
The piece was created by Tony Hernandez, an actor and circus artist who is a Lookingglass company member and also performs the title role. As Zeus and Hera cast Hephaestus from Mt. Olympus, Hernandez spectacularly falls from a platform into an open trap on stage. His greeting on Earth by sea nymphs is represented by a chorus of gymnasts balancing on sets of green double sashes, lit to suggest an underwater locale. Once Hephaestus is on Earth, he becomes crippled. Hernandez performs most of the show hobbling on crutches, but still using his muscular upper body to perform some amazing feats.
When Iris is sent to Earth with a message for Hephaestus, her journey is shown in spectacular form as a trapeze and balancing act by Erendira Vazquez-Wallenda. Hera (Liljana Wallenda-Hernandez) returns to Earth balancing on a suspended ring before Hephaestus imprisons her on a magic throne with invisible shackles. This angers Zeus, who sends Ares, the god of war, to battle Hephaestus and secure Hera's release. Ares is performed by the muscular Almas Meirmanov, and his arrival is shown in an amazing performance of hand balancing on a sash. Ares' mission fails, and Zeus makes a peace offering of Aphrodite (Katia Dmitrieva) to become Hephaestus' wife. Dmitrieva, a veteran of the Moscow Circus and Cirque du Soleil, arrives in spectacular fashion.
Hephaestus is given a set of magical leg braces that allow him to walk, and he returns to Mt. Olympus by walking up a balancing pole set at a 45 degree angle. The return of Hera to her proper throne is displayed in a literally breathtaking seven-person high wire pyramid act two to three stories above the stage. Two pairs of silverguys carrying balancing rods on their backs support the duo of Hephaestus and Ares carrying a third rod, on which Hera sitson her throne. Midway, they stop and Hera rises and sits again. All this is performed without a net or wires and you hold your breath for the minutes it takes the team to cross the theater. In previous productions of the piece (this is its fifth), the pyramid was done with three performers, but the greater height of the Owen Theater allows room for the stunning three-level pyramid executed here. It's reason enough to see the show.
Hernandez and Heidi Stillman are credited (along with Kerry Catlin and Rick Sims) with the piece's direction and story. Though the myth told here is largely a device to link the gymnastic feats, the beauty, grace and superhuman skill of the performers seem to bring the myths to life. Surely the people on stage are no mere mortals.
Hephaestus: A Greek Mythology Circus Tale will be performed through May 23, 2010 in the Goodman Theatre's Owen Bruner Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago. Tickets available online through GoodmanTheatre.org; or at the Goodman Box Office, 170 North Dearborn; 312.443.3800.