Wednesday, February 20, 2013

First Night Report: Traces at TPAC

Posted By on Wed, Feb 20, 2013 at 4:35 PM

For those of us given permanent restraining orders under the law of gravity, Traces is a thing of near-constant wonder. The touring attraction featuring members of Montreal's acrobatic troupe Les 7 Doigts de la Main plays at TPAC's Jackson Hall through Sunday, and it opened last night to an audience that will likely be much bigger and louder by tonight's performance.

That seems crucial, as the show works better as a kind of street-theater piece gone uptown than a splashy Cirque du Soleil fantasia. The seven cast members — Mason Ames, Valérie Benoît-Charbonneau, Mathieu Cloutier, Bradley Henderson, Philippe Normand-Jenny, Lucas Boutin and LJ Marles — fed off the audience's energy the way they would if they were passing the hat on a crowded city sidewalk. Except the currency here is enthusiasm: The more patrons hollered, the more risky and frisky the performers became. It took some time last night for the cast to build much audience rapport — and to be fair, the show is more athletic and impressive than high-spirited — but by night's end, hundreds of gasps in unison were gratifyingly common.

Like its necessarily spartan set — built to accommodate fast changes of equipment, and suggesting a post-apocalyptic bunker — Traces is largely a lesson in doing more with less. Clever lighting makes an animated cave painting of the backdrops, the performers' shadows expanding and receding across the back wall's canvas; props and furnishings are so minimal that the descent of a microphone boxing-ring style registers as an event. The cast's interaction with these items provides some of the brightest moments, as when sinuous solo interaction turns a dumpy old armchair into a combination turtle's shell, playground slide and dirty-dancing partner.

But shows like this are only as good as their next feat, and Traces smartly paces its escalation from human-gyroscope act to Chinese pole-tumbling, mid-air flips, skateboard leaps (an oldie that never ceases to amaze) and a knockout finale with members hurtling, leaping and criss-crossing through an ever-higher series of Chinese rings. Watching performers achieve something like an 8-foot liftoff, only to jackknife in midair and breeze through a hula-hoop-sized ring in one "effortless" movement, beats any CGI special effect you can name for sheer wows.

At its best, Traces reminds me of the giddiness I feel watching Jackie Chan zip, twist, contort and soar in his stunning prime, when his slapstick lightness made sport of his mastery, his dominion over the limits of human exertion. Truth be told, the show could use a little more of that exuberance. Its absence of Chaplin-esque whimsy is a refreshing change from the cloying exertions of Cirque du Soleil, to be sure, but its weirdly aggressive tone muffles some of the fun (although the surly opening announcement is a hoot).

The performers may be constantly smacking and shoving each other, but for their audience there's nothing but love — and the more love audiences show, I suspect, the better a show you'll see. A 10-year-old kid in front of me last night cheered all the same things I did; after one lollapalooza stunt — I believe it was a 15-foot upside-down plunge that convinced the crowd they were about to see paramedics — he turned and gave me a big thumbs up. A reviewer need say no more.

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