A Soft-Porn Circus and a Chance for Romance
Torontoist has been acquired by Daily Hive Toronto - Your City. Now. Click here to learn more.

Torontoist

culture

A Soft-Porn Circus and a Chance for Romance

Spiegelworld’s Empire balances awesome acrobatics with sleazy comedy, while Rebecca Northan’s Blind Date brings out the best in men.

Miss A in a Bubble (Australia's Lucia Cabrines) performs aerial acrobatics in Spiegelworld's Empire  Photo by Danielle Covin

Miss A in a Bubble (Lucia Cabrines) performs aerial acrobatics in Spiegelworld’s Empire. Photo by Danielle Covin.


Empire
Spiegeltent (318 Queens Quay West)
Runs to Oct. 18
$45 – $144.50
3stars


Blind Date
Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgman Avenue)
Runs to Oct. 4
$28 – $60
20111004Raystars 4andahalf24


Warning: If you’re going to see Spiegelworld’s Empire, keep your hat on. If you have a bald or shaved head and you happen to sit near the front of the stage, you run the danger of having your naked cranium lasciviously licked by Oscar, the sleazy ringmaster of this touring circus-meets-burlesque show.

Mind you, even if you wear a hat, there’s still the risk that he’ll get you involved in a game of catch using chunks of masticated banana, or pull you onstage and subject you to a full-frontal (if mercifully quick) glimpse at his junk. Indeed, the gleefully gross Oscar (played by Don Colliver) makes Alan Cumming’s Cabaret MC seem like the soul of refinement.

If none of this puts you off, then you’re ready to enjoy the scummy pleasures of Spiegelworld, a sort of soft-porn Cirque du Soleil. Where Cirque services our inner child (to quote Homer Simpson), Spiegelworld appeals to our inner dirty old man (or woman, as the case may be). Its nimble acrobats double as striptease artists. Its lewd clowns grope you. And while, like Cirque, it performs in a tent—the Spiegeltent, currently, um, erected at the corner of Queen’s Quay West and Rees Street—this is less Grand Chapiteau and more seedy little cabaret, bedecked with mirrors and stained glass like some classy brothel and centred on a circular stage not much bigger than a large coffee table. (The venue is modelled on the original Belgian spiegeltents, or “mirror tents:” wood-and-canvas pavilions that served as mobile dance halls in fin de siècle Europe.)

Empire, the Spiegelworld show playing Toronto, is a New York-themed entertainment that premiered in the Times Square district in 2012 and has since toured Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. It looks like something created for the tourists who flock to Times Square: the company parades with cardboard Manhattan skyscrapers or protest signs evoking the Occupy movement, while Brampton-born singer Tessa Alves belts out torchy arrangements of Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan,” Alicia Keys’s “Empire State of Mind,” and other Big Apple-flavoured songs. According to the press materials, there’s some kind of storyline about Colliver’s character being an impresario trying to rebuild his showbiz empire in the wake of the 2008 financial crash—but if that’s the case, the plot must have got lost somewhere in transit. For all we can tell, obnoxious Oscar and his slutty co-host, Fanny (Jamie Franta), could just as well be a couple of decadent American Neroes, fiddling with themselves and others while the 99 per cent burns with anger.

But what Empire is really about, clearly, is keeping us in awe, Cirque style, with an array of acrobatic feats. The conceit is that these are being undertaken by a gaggle of freaks who go by names such as Lime Green Lady and Carrot Man, or Half Naked Asian Dude Wearing Pigtails. But the freakiness is just window dressing for some skilled international circus performers. There’s aerial contortionist Miss A in a Bubble (Australia’s Lucia Carbines); foot-juggling duo Big Mac Boy and Black Flintstone (Ethiopia’s Temegen Adole Zada and Henok Belachew Yazachew); and a trio of Gorilla Girls (the American-Ukrainian team of Leslie Munos, Alina Reutska, and Kateryna Rudenko, looking less like primates and more like Victoria’s Secret models) who do a sexed-up banquine routine. The scariest act is undertaken by Russian roller skaters Denis Petaov and Mariia Beseimbetova—alias Blue Tarpoleon and Polka Dot Woman—whose high-velocity spinning threatens to send Beseimbetova careening into the audience.

The most breathtaking act, however—quite literally—is Andreis Jacobs’s slow, hypnotic demonstration of what is known as the Sanddorn Balance, in which he builds a huge, precarious structure out of palm-leaf ribs. Jacobs comes from the Swiss Rigolo circus troupe, where this balancing feat was originally devised by co-founder Mädir Eugster and became the highlight of Cirque’s enthralling Amaluna show—seen in Toronto in 2012—when it was performed by Lara Jacobs using her feet. That’s not to take away from Andreis, who is still pretty incredible, and watching his naked, muscled torso, quiveringly tense and gleaming with sweat, is a whole lot sexier than the crude antics of Oscar and Fanny.

The show is produced by its own sleazy impresario, Australian Ross Mollison, who first made his name with Puppetry of the Penis. His other Spiegelworld productions include Absinthe, which has carved a niche for itself in Cirque-dominated Las Vegas—specifically, in the forecourt of Caesar’s Palace. His creative team for Empire boasts such stellar Oz talents as Baz Luhrmann’s long-time choreographer John “Cha Cha” O’Connell and costume designer Angus Strathie, who won an Oscar for Moulin Rouge. The latter has provided a Halloween party worth of crazy costume effects, from the rainbow wigs of Half Naked Asian Dude (Japanese wheel master Yasu Yoshikawa) to the Viking horns of Alves’s musical accompanist, fleet-fingered French guitar player Aurelien Budynek, a.k.a. Moondog.

Rebecca Northan plays amorous clown Mimi in her hit show Blind Date, opening Tarragon Theatre's new season  Photo by Michael Meehan

Rebecca Northan plays amorous clown Mimi in her hit show Blind Date, opening Tarragon Theatre’s new season. Photo by Michael Meehan.

If you favour romance over raunchiness and prefer audience interaction that doesn’t involve having your head licked, then bypass Spiegelworld and go straight to the Tarragon Theatre, which is hosting the triumphant return of Rebecca Northan’s Blind Date.

By coincidence, Blind Date was also spawned in a spiegeltent—the one that World Stage pitched at Harbourfront Centre in 2007 for the inaugural Luminato Festival. Among the acts commissioned for it was this inspired creation from Toronto-based actress and ace improviser Northan—a piece that, expanded from a 10-minute routine to a 90-minute show, went on to visit World Stage again, twice; toured across Canada; played engagements in New York and London; and has since become a mini-franchise—Northan has trained several actresses to play her role, the amorous French clown Mimi. Now she’s brought Blind Date back to T.O. to open Tarragon’s 45th season and if you haven’t seen it before, it’s a must. Even if you have, it’s still a must—given its extemporaneous nature, no two performances are the same.

The premise has sexy-funny Mimi, in a red dress and red clown nose, bringing a male audience member onstage to be her blind date. Together, the two sip wine at a bistro, getting to know one another. Later, the date progresses to Mimi’s car and then back to her place, where the audience gets to vote on the final outcome. The chosen date “plays” himself, although if he’s married or in a relationship, he’s asked to pretend to be single: “That way you’ll be a romantic hero,” Mimi tells him in her purring Catherine Deneuve accent, “and not just an asshole.” (Shades of Ashley Madison.)

It’s a brilliant way of both defusing and examining one of the most awkward, intimate, and potentially life-changing of social interactions. By playing at being on a date, the men get to express their feelings about life and love without any pressure. And Mimi is the most understanding of ladies, giving them (as well as herself) an opportunity to call a “time out” if the date starts going off-track.

The show’s tone is lighthearted, with some built-in comic scenarios, but its purpose isn’t to score laughs off its unwitting participants. Northan is an alumna of Calgary’s seminal Loose Moose Theatre Company, co-founded by the great improvisation teacher Keith Johnstone, and she practises Johnstone’s philosophy that improv should go beyond comedy to engage the audience emotionally. Blind Date owes something to Johnstone’s celebrated Life Game in that it lets us get to know a stranger by transforming him into a dramatic hero—in this case, and in Mimi’s words, a romantic one—whom we often end up rooting for.

Last Friday’s performance saw us charmed by Richard, an older man from South Africa whose soft-spoken demeanour belied a past as a sports-car racer and a carpe diem attitude. It turned out he’d lost a good friend at an early age, which made him determined to live life to the fullest. On Saturday, in contrast, audiences were treated to Chris, a hunky 31-year-old who revealed his Magic Mike side by gamely stripping to his boxer shorts at the show’s climax. (Northan has been affectionately recording these and Mimi’s other Tarragon dates in regular posts on her Facebook page.)

We’ve seen a depressing amount of misogynistic, not to say criminal, male behaviour of late, from sports fans heckling female reporters to the Cosby and Ghomeshi cases (ironically, Jian Ghomeshi interviewed Northan about Blind Date on Q back in 2009). So it’s lovely to see a show that restores the balance, revealing the candid, tender, and playful side of men. It’s reassuring to think that the assholes are in the minority.

Comments