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January 25, 2008

Two Off-the-Wall

Roy Meachum

Web of Straps- The Jungleswingers of Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy will get you caught up in their Web of Straps.  Photo by Carol Rosegg

Both Baltimore's Hippodrome and Washington's Shakespeare Theatre Company opened new shows this week. By sheer coincidence, both stages are presenting productions that strike me as off-the-wall. Quite unlike their usual fare.

In the gloriously restored Hippodrome Theatre where the evenings are usually spent declaiming language, only the sung version is heard. "Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy" was created by Neil Goldberg to capitalize on the slew of internationally superb performers available.

He counts among his company natives of Mongolia, Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria and Canada; the U.S.-born talents are vastly outnumbered. Fortunately for the evening, the singer who sets the mood for many of the numbers is Julia Langley, who lends a jazz uplift throughout the two hours. It should be noted the curtain comes down before 10, making the evening suitable for younger audiences. And they should go!

Tuesday's opening night swarmed with kids of all ages, as the saying goes, even those in Mary Janes and elastic-band jeans. Not on the same child, of course. Not a squeak from the younger crowd, not while the performers were doing their thing. As their elders, the boys and girls sat spellbound, not wanting to miss a tumble or turn.

And what they saw was a whole lot of acrobatics, juggling and carryings-on with hoops and wheels and trapeze bars. One couple wrapped themselves in gorgeous ribbon and swept high above the stage. Ingeniously conceived animals, especially the emus, skittered and strutted proudly back and forth, drawing more than a few exclamations from the opening night throng that seemed to fill every seat in the house.

At the center of all the to-do looms a character dubbed Soul Tree, and that's very appropriate for American Jared Burnett; his towering slim body invokes the image of a tree in very fit human form. His accomplished playing on the electric violin defines the soul of what Mr. Goldberg and his troupe are doing. His is an altogether impressive presence. Bravo!

"Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy" bounds out of Baltimore after next weekend's performances, as is the Hippodrome's usual wont. They continue the tour that a pair of years back was stage managed by Roy Meachum. He and I telephoned frequently while the show was bopping about the countryside. But until Tuesday night I had no idea how well my son's time was spent.

Up front, let me admit no relative of mine had anything to do with the Shakespeare Theatre Company's "Argonautika." That's not a boast but a sad fact.

Lisa Tejero as Hera and Sofia Jean Gomez as Athena in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Argonautika, written and directed by Mary Zimmerman. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Director and writer Mary Zimmerman has come up with the perfect antidote for all the classical scholars and drama buffs who take themselves much too seriously. It's her version of how Jason and his hardy crew named for their ship, Argo, overcame divine and human challenges to retrieve the Golden Fleece.

Along the way, they managed to frustrate a couple of goddesses. As the ancient Greeks used to do, Hera and Athena are made more mortal than mere men and women, which is to say they engage in the most petty human emotions and attitudes. The characters function as the mistresses of ceremonies for Ms. Zimmerman's tale.

While leaving her lines unscathed, the production calls for a series of pratfalls or their equivalents. The Chicago-based and highly acclaimed refurbisher of ancient tragedies and comedies centers the evening on the most profane spirit that caused audiences to teeter and totter on their marble perches. She may have even borrowed from her spiritual predecessors the sausage that both symbolized comedies and emphasized where the audiences were expected to laugh. Although I saw no such props.

A rudimentary knowledge of Greek legends and mythology certainly helps, but anyone wandering into Seventh Street's Landsburgh Theatre can quickly catch onto the zany method and mood of "Argonautika."

By the way, in the production the highly sought Golden Fleece resembles nothing so much as an accent rug. And that's how Jason treats the icon for all that's best and noble among our ancestors.

It's that kind of a show, folks – one you shouldn't miss.

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