I spend the first five minutes of Cirque du Soleil’s opening night at the John Paul Jones Arena, the first performance in a five-night stand by the Canadian-spectacle-gone-Vegas-glitz-fest, not writing a thing. Instead, I mutter awed syllables with the people around me, cutting phrases like “Did you see that?” and “How’d those trapeze artists pull that stunt off?” into nonsense: “Di?…How?”
Each time I lower my eyes to my notebook in the dark, it feels like an exercise for the attention deficient—how long can someone keep from gawking at a cast of just-shorter-than-lifesize neon highlighters that flip and spin in front of him? The whole of Saltimbanco, Cirque’s oldest touring show (launched in 1992), skips along so brightly and colorfully that it rewards the bedazzled spectator while refuting the critic’s attention; the moment I start paying close attention, I get sidetracked or sidestepped by something else. It’s a three-ring circus with a lax immigration policy, everyone jumping borders.
As a play, the show hangs loosely together. There are acts, but they’re organized more by type of stunt and the degree to which they thrill or terrify the audience; there are characters, but they seem to be differentiated solely by costume and skill, and they all speak in a gloppy babble of sounds.
But as a musical circus, Saltimbanco is wildly entertaining—a collection of electrified pinks and blues that bungee jump from trapeze bars to cross paths and flip like flaming pinwheels, men and women in Bozo paint and “Smurf” uniforms catapulting from swingsets onto mattresses, and a few hilariously syncopated mime scenes. Cirque’s live band sounds like Genesis playing the b-sides of Andrew Lloyd Webber, a lunar soundscape with the occasional jagged shard of fanfare, to match the quick-flipping pace of a bicycle daredevil one moment and the slow formation of body sculptures by two muscle-heaped men in spandex and suspenders.
Most impressive is Saltimbanco’s use of the stage’s periphery. With a cast of a couple dozen characters in front of a crowd of a few thousand, there almost seems to be too many performers; they slink, masked and rainbow-slapped, to the borders of their stage and act out smaller dramas ranging from infantile jokes to naive flirtation to sex-savvy suggestion. When I lose interest in the sensational main course, I pick and choose among the smaller, colorful side dishes. And when they turn their heads back to the big, shimmering spectacle at center, I have a hard time not doing the same.