Circus Review: Cirque du Soleil -- Totem
San Francisco, December 1
Tickets: $49.50 to $360.00
Totem will not mark a high point in Cirque du Soleil history.
This overly directed effort is so curiously weak on star turns, and so weighted down under extraneous choreography, special effects and clever scenic illusions (creamy white waves rippling across a shoreline) -- that, by the time it has worked its empty course, I was left feeling slightly puzzled by what wasn't there. For starters, a soul.
If, like the lady sitting next to me, you go to Cirque du Soliel because you like the "atmosphere," on that count, you'll get plenty of it here.
Along with all the tedious posturing, such as the prolonged entrance and exit movements of a pair of roller skaters in white, before and after actually doing something on a raised platform. And something rather average at that.
There is a chilly existential feel to this outing that reminded me of something you encounter at one of those cutting edge "performance pieces." Creative highpoint is an eccentric prop-intense display in which a juggler works balls bouncing up and down inside a large hour-glass like object, suggesting a scene from a fantasy yet to be sketched out by Pixar -- or maybe Quentin Tarantino. Odd ball characters on the edges create a brilliantly bizarre stage picture.
Talent wise, I remember exactly one act that took my breath away -- five Chinese woman on very tall unicycles tossing between themselves tin saucers. By degrees of complexity, they built to a breathtaking finish.
The athletic action is vigorous, most of it built on humdrum fundamentals. Pole vaulting here becomes plank vaulting. Perch pole work is anchored to tell-tale mechanics. Native American hoop dancing offers a pleasant cultural diversion, after which, a scene on the beach looks as if Bloody Mary is about to enter followed by the sailors belting out "there is nothing like a dame!"
Ah, there is nothing quite like Totem -- Maybe it's not all the fault of Cirque du Soleil. Maybe all the best talent in the world has already been sucked up into other shows -- by Cirque du Soleil.
Music is a variable pleasure, from lovely tinkle to pounding drums. The hard working clowns win a few laughs in their endless bickering. One of them scores charmingly while trying to fish himself a decent meal from a row boat. And here is where Totem's heart lies, not in the circus at all, but in the theatre. Problem is, stranded between the two disparate forms, it fails to achieve a memorable imprint in either category. But, for ambitiously trying -- YAWN, maybe they deserve a half star higher than what I am inclined to give them, So ...
Overall score (4 stars tops): 2-1/2 stars
End ringers: How wrong might I be? After posting this notice, I searched for S.F. reviews and was fairly shocked to see near-unanimous raves from the local critics. In fact, I hadn't seen a single review anywhere until posting mine .... No-show acts: Two acts pictured in the program magazine(one may have been merely part of an ad) did not appear in the performance I attended ... A very short stay in San Francisco? Usually, Cirque hangs out for up to about three months. This time, they're closing up the tent in mid-December, after having held court for around six weeks. When I saw the show, business was certainly good, but there were plenty of empty seats scattered throughout the tent ... From here, they go to LONDON, then BACK to the Bay Area, to hang their tent down in San Jose ... Time spent: First half: 50 minutes; Intermission: 30 minutes; Last half: 60 minutes. Sell. Sell. Sell. Example: "regular" size popcorn -- $6.26.
From Yelp! The average consumer review on Yelp! -- five stars tops -- is an impressive 4. Many of those have never seen a Cirque show before. Here is one of a number of the dissenters (to make me feel not so stupid) ...
From Hector G. in Burlingame: "Cirque is one of those amazing experiences that I can't compare to anything else. The shows I've experienced have truly blown me away. It's because of my experience with Ka that every other show feels like it doesn't stand up. I have such high expectations for the show now that I've experienced the best show they have, in my opinion.
Totem was flat, slow, boring at times and just didn't do it for me. If you have never watched a Cirque performance, I would highly recommend this show. If you are a seasoned veteran, this show may disappoint.
I found myself looking at my watch, a few different times and that is NEVER a good thing when at a performance of this caliber. I wanted to love this show. I wanted so badly to walk away impressed on all levels as I usually am, but this show was near dreadful.
A few shining moments of course, but there was way too much fluff and not enough money shots."
Due out in January: In Showbiz David's forthcoming new book, Inside the Changing Circus: A Critic's Guide, one of the major topics explored is the phenomenal rise and world-wide artistic impact of Cirque du Soleil.