Cirque du Soleil’s fantastical ‘Kurios’ is a heart-stopping marvel

A show about the richness of human imagination in a once-upon-a-time where science meets art.

“Exhilarating. Heart-stopping. Old-timey curious.”

Those were the words from my companion last evening, Pete, a rising sixth-grader, and this was his first time experiencing the indomitable global phenomenon that is Cirque du Soleil. As something of a die-hard groupie, I was also curious how the show, Kurios, first brought to the area in 2016, would hit me since the world had inarguably changed. I concur with Pete.

Scene from ‘Kurios – Cabinet of Curiosities.’ Photo © Martin Girard shootstudio.ca. Costume credit: Philippe Guillotel.

If anything the premise and the marvelous, extended unfolding number that opens the show are even more delicious and tender viewed today. Structurally, it introduces the recurring characters in the evening’s entertainment: The Seeker (Anton Valen), a white-haired irrepressible scientist; a “Mentalist” (Andrey Nikitin) with an oversized turbaned frontal lobe that lights up revealing gears for brains; a hugely rotund gentleman (Microcosmos) whose bathysphere-like stomach houses a little lady not three feet tall; the lady herself (Rina Hadchiti), who elegantly parades swathed in a fur stole and who has a special power and symbiotic relationship with Microcosmos; a hoop-skirted Klara (Kazuha Ikeda), who snakes across the stage and uses her hoops and wire-like arms to channel invisible waves; an accordion-pleated giant (Nico Baixas), who folds and unfolds himself gloriously; a Saint-Exupéry–styled pilot (James Gonzales Correa), who shares his delight about early flight by sending paper airplanes out into the audience from high aloft inside the circus tent. Periodically, a chorus appears as a group of assistants of odd sorts; they include three clownish mad scientists, a set of the quirkiest and most adorable leather-and-metal clad robots anyone would ever want to see, and a quartet of male swim-hunks dressed à la mode (early 1900s) and sporting sassy wiggling fishtails.

Scene from ‘Kurios – Cabinet of Curiosities.’ Photo © Martin Girard shootstudio.ca. Costume credit: Philippe Guillotel.

The director/writer of the production, Michel Laprise, created the show to preserve and celebrate the delights of human scale and man and woman’s propensity for curiosity. The show is like looking into the insides of a watch or through the wrong end of a telescope. The stage represents a fantastical, alternate futuristic world, littered with bell jars, manual typewriters, and phonographs with elaborate horns, through the golden glow of the gaslit world of the past. It is indeed a “cabinet of curiosities,” all about the richness of the human imagination in a once-upon-a-time age where science meets art.

With the exquisite set and props designed by Stéphane Roy and the highly imaginative, steampunk-inspired costumes designed by Philippe Guillotel, the effect is exhilarating. Kurios carries the audience into the co-creation of a world where discoveries are meant to delight us in this playground of man. And boy, how we need this today!

I love most that it remains mostly human scale, while some of Cirque du Soleil’s other recent projects as featured in Las Vegas seem over-the-top, tech-driven. Although there is an enormous mouth of a train tunnel, which dominates the set upstage, when the train comes snaking through the space powered by our cast, it is more scaled as toy-train technology. It’s a world born in nostalgia, a time when the world seemed manageable, and yes, to eyes full of wonder, hopeful.

There are only occasional signs of how rampant technology will come to dominate us and threaten the world. I found especially creepy the giant hand that was built like a cross between a riveted-metal robot and a piece of arsenal, which served later in one of the acts as a platform for three hyper-mobile female acrobats. I also am less of a fan of the full-volume, over-amped blaring of the vocalist and band that seems a signature of the company’s production values. This show, in particular, might have benefitted from more balance and nuance.

Scene from ‘Kurios – Cabinet of Curiosities.’ Photo © Martin Girard shootstudio.ca. Costume credit: Philippe Guillotel.

The acts themselves in some cases have changed since Kurios last came to town, and there’s been some re-ordering. If anything, the acrobatics are even more heart-stopping.

A man does a solo act on a pole. One used to associate such acts with feminine pulchritude and lightly sleazy venues (but I’m showing my age, I realize). The acrobat here takes working with a pole to new levels of astonishment, lifting his body parallel to the ground and perpendicular to the pole, then sliding down at top speed head first and stopping inches from collision.

There are still the young female contortionists, always a favorite, but these defy anatomical integrity of the human skeleton. Dressed in neon body suits with rippling fringy bits, they seem like a pile of eels or a fantastic single cephalopod.

A favorite act is where a man balances on top of chairs while a dinner with some of our favorite characters gets disassembled. The act is so fantastic that I won’t give it away, but let me give you a hint. Look up. Impossible!

But when a girl-next-door (Anne Weissbecker) enters as the vélo aérien act, riding an aerial bicycle, and suddenly the bicycle takes off and flies, and she’s doing stunt tricks in the air like a rodeo-rider, I suddenly believe I just might try. Anything is possible.

Our fearless “aviator” returns to balance on top of cylinders and balls atop his most original winged plane, which has become a kind of trapeze and rises into the air mid-act. How does he do this? Mirrors? Magnets? Impossible!

It’s hard to choose a favorite in this feast, but my heart leaped when a team of men, some dressed with those fish tails, presented what was billed as an Aquatic Extravaganza. The acrobats bound up and down on a special Acro Net — and so high I am surprised they didn’t need oxygen. (The team works closely together to hold the tension in the net so that it accentuates the trampoline effect.) Magnifique!

The invisible circus was one of Pete’s favorites (mine too). Facundo Gimenez, a clown who serves as ringmaster, manages a miniaturized, old-time, single-ring circus announced with fanfare and spotlight. The curtain parts, trapezes swing, bouncing board bounces, ring of fire is lit, and lion roars, but no “artists” do you see. It’s a world, to paraphrase Shakespeare, “signifying nothing” — nothing that is except everyone’s imagination. In the second act, Gimenez returns with an even more hilarious act, as a male-on-the-make who tries to seduce a tall, willowy woman plucked from the audience, first with sound and movement impersonating a parrot or the famed dancing cockatoo, then as a cat, and finally as the most feral and ridiculous of them all, a man on the prowl. Gimenez presents physical theater at its best.

Scene from ‘Kurios – Cabinet of Curiosities.’ Photo © Martin Girard shootstudio.ca. Costume credit: Philippe Guillotel.

Exhilarating too are moments “small” and child-friendly in scale. An act starring fingers, projected on a giant balloon as a screen, mimics a kids’ game with finger puppets and is perfectly silly.

I missed some of the glue that the storyline provided as I remember from the show in 2016. The Siamese Twins (Brothers Roman and Vitali Tomanov) are not given a comprehensible arc in the story. Their aerial act with long straps is as beautiful as ever, but I didn’t follow the metaphysical journey of the two men released to become independent creatures who could suddenly soar on their own. Some of the other excising that has occurred puts more emphasis on the acrobatic acts than the world these creatures inhabit. Occasionally, I longed for more of the curious, Kurios’ world.

Meet you at the tent.

Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes, with a 25-minute intermission.

Kurios – Cabinet of Curiosities plays through September 25, 2022, under the Big Top at Lerner Town Square at Tysons II, 8025 Galleria Drive, Tysons, VA. Tickets (starting at $40) are available online. For booking assistance call (877) 924-7783.

COVID Safety: Cirque du Soleil’s Commitment to Safety statement is here.

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Playwright, librettist, songwriter, director, theater reviewer, and actress Susan Galbraith has worked in London, Singapore, New York, Minneapolis, Prague, and Boston before settling in DC. Her resume includes working with international directors including Peter Brooks, Miřenka Čechová, and Peter Sellars; choreographer Takao Tomono; and rock-and-roll superstar Prince. After moving to Washington, she helped found Alliance for New Music-Theatre and in the past decade led the development of original works across the spectrum of music-theater including musicals and opera. For over a decade, she was also pleased to support the greater Washington theater community as a happy member of the reviewing team of DC Theater Scene under Lorraine Treanor. She holds a BA from Tufts University, graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, and two graduate degrees, including a Fulbright fellowship. She now lives in Kalorama with three cats, a happy Samoyed, and a most understanding partner. You can read more of her theater writing here.

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