Hephaestus hot like Greek fire
The troupe's latest production, "Hephaestus: A Greek Mythology Circus Tale," certainly succeeds in breaking free of the Ringling Bros. mold with elegant and awe-inspiring athletic feats.
The concept of "theater without a net" is exemplified in this story of the lesser-known Greek god Hephaestus (played by director and theater founder Tony Hernandez), who is born a cripple and thus hurled off Mount Olympus by his mother, Hera. After plummeting for a full day, he lands in the ocean where he is adopted by a bevy of sea nymphs who nurse him back to health. Possessing extraordinary metalworking abilities, Hephaestus crafts beautiful jewelry for the sea nymphs, becoming known as god of the forge.
Directors Hernandez and Heidi Stillman unite an elite cast of veteran circus performers to bring the story to life, including three members of the much-lauded Wallenda family. Members of the ensemble have also performed with Ringling Bros., Cirque du Soleil and Chicago's Blue Man Group.
With such an incredibly talented cast, it's no wonder this production is nothing short of phenomenal. Told through the eyes of a nine-year-old narrator, the tale is illustrated with various circus-esque apparatus, such as hula-hoops, high wire and trapeze.
The production is set to a backdrop of pulsating rhythms on large kettle drums much like those popularized by Blue Man Group. A haunting violin melody also persists throughout the action, adding to the overall drama and beauty.
Especially impressive are the four sea nymphs, who are suspended from the ceiling using long pieces of dyed nylon fabric known as the silks, which allow them to gracefully twist and flip as they descend upon the feeble Hephaestus.
Another standout performer is the Russian contortionist Olga Pikhienko, who quite literally throws herself into the role of sensual Aphrodite, goddess of love. Performing a technique called hand-balancing, Pikhienko demonstrates unbelievable strength, agility and flexibility in her dance of seduction, which may leave audience members with pounding hearts and sweaty palms.
This is not the only time audience members may have difficulty catching their breath. The mythic tale culminates in a spine-tingling four-person high wire act, a signature of the Wallenda family.
Hernandez could have completely foregone a plot and still provided many high-flying thrills for the audience. Instead, he opted to take a more cerebral approach, thereby distinguishing his creation from Cirque du Soleil, which incorporates like elements but is not nearly as plot-driven. This use of narrative greatly enhances the production, forcing the audience to become more invested in the fates of the characters as they perform acrobatic feats.
Lookingglass Theatre\'s narrative approach also caters to adults who would classify all things relating to the circus as strictly for children. While the plot functions to draw in a more mature audience, the impressive acrobatics are what keep the audience intrigued. This is perhaps what Hernandez had in mind when he stated his desire to "create a circus with artists who I think are the world's greatest, [but also to] sprinkle some Lookinglass on it."