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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Members of the cast.
Photo by Michael Meseke.

The sun might be only eight light minutes away from the Earth, but there are times the circus franchise bearing its name has felt a lot more distant than that. Cirque du Soleil, for its many charms and talented participants, has thrived in part in this country by capturing a culture that's both literally and figuratively foreign to ours in almost every particular. If that's what you're in the mood for when you go to the theatre, even to see a largely wordless and plotless entertainment, great. But for those who want something more real, more relatable, and more likely to resemble contemporary urban culture, a potent antidote has just opened at the Union Square Theatre: Traces.

True, this show is the work of the Montreal-based troupe Les 7 Doigts de la Main and not some enterprising New York company. But it captures the aesthetic and the mindset of young and hip Americans so well, and even relies on (gasp) recognizable English words organized into sentences, that you may be forgiven for temporarily forgetting its province of origin. You'll have considerably more trouble forgetting the myriad ways in which director-choreographers Shana Carroll and Gypsy Snider and their seven-member cast upend and caffeinate the theatrical circus culture about which it seemed nothing more could be said.

From its initial moments, the evening plays much more like a dance extravaganza than an acrobatic recital. On the set, a vivid theatrical mélange of shaggy drops, visible lighting instruments, and a hyperactive projection screen, every leap, roll, or swing around two upstage poles resolves itself into rhythm or complex patterns of movements that are about more than advocating physical superiority. While zooming, spinning, or rolling around the stage, the performers organize into groups, often pairings, that suggest innate rivalries or relationships that exist, often in spite of their desires. And, indeed, when the group stops long enough to step downstage and look at the audience, each of their expressions is distant, reflecting a dark loneliness that their innocent games can't remedy.

Traces does not just pay lip service to such internal demons—it investigates, and tries to tame them over the course of 90 minutes. Using such a small ensemble of do-everything athletes lets the show do so in an intimate way that highlights and builds on the individuality of each performer. Each delivers a short personal monologue, focusing on thoughts and fears, and later runs down a litany of descriptive traits (things like "clumsy" and "romantic") that we come to see infect everything they do. And because they speak their names, and refer to each other by them, you get to know and care about these people and what they're doing as you can't with aerialists who wow you for five minutes and then vanish.

Those personal connections ultimately elevate the stunts here because, with very few exceptions, they're all ones you've seen before. One guy rolling around in a giant metal hoop, and another one performing apparently impossible balance feats on a chair. A man and a woman recreating a lust affair by his repeatedly hoisting her on his shoulders. That same woman, later on, reappearing to perform aerial gymnastics aided only by a rope. Several minutes of wire juggling. By themselves, these are not spectacular—the show's one profound disappointment is that, for all its originality, it relies so heavily on these types of tried, true, and tired tricks.

Mason Ames and Valérie Benoit-Charbonneau.
Photo by Michael Meseke.

But when the couple is Mason Ames and Valérie Benoît-Charbonneau, and the effects of their brief time together ripple throughout the rest of the night, it feels integral rather than isolated; and when Benoît-Charbonneau appears for her climactic act, clad in sultry red (the first time anyone has worn anything other than black, white, or gray), it's the culmination of her personal journey of desire. You actually sympathize with Florian Zumkehr, who performs that chair balancing only to be forced to sing a charming ballad, and accompany himself on the guitar, seconds afterward. The "friendship" between Ames and his American-born castmate, Bradley Henderson, reaches its zenith when both leap together onto the seesaw that sends perpetual show-boater Philippe Normand-Jenny backward into the air—and you understand that he's always stealing the spotlight because he perceives everyone as a threat to his spirit. In the final scene, Mathieu Cloutier and Xia Zhengqi become involved in a startling exhibition of one-upmanship as they jump through ever-rising pillars of rings.

Add in a few thoughtful group dazzlers—there's a charming skateboard softshoe section, a clever mock basketball match, and even a warm-heated sing-along at the onstage piano (with nearly everyone taking a turn at the keys)—and you have a show like no other of its genre. By the time it concludes, you've become involved with each person, and grown to understand and appreciate their personalities, gifts, and limitations. Those other more polished and budget-laden spectacles only want to hint at humanity, but Traces embraces it, in all its messy and despondent glory. In doing so, it shows that real life, even when filtered through circus specialties, is the most thrilling experience theatre can offer.

Through October 9
Union Square Theatre, 100 East 17th Street between Park Avenue and Irving Place
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Ticketmaster