Review: The Return (Circa/Canadian Stage)

Members of the Circa Ensemble in The Return.Canadian Stage presents Australian Circus company Circa’s production The Return in Toronto

Circa explores the fusion of circus and opera in their production of The Return, a reimagining of Monteverdi’s baroque masterpiece The Return of Ulysses. The show opened on Wednesday night at the Bluma Appel Theatre as part of the Spotlight: Australia performance festival, produced by Canadian Stage. Featuring seven highly trained circus artists, a live ensemble of musicians and two opera singers, the performance definitely pushes the boundaries of convention.

The story of Monteverdi’s work is the classic tale of Odysseus’s return home from the Trojan war. His wife, Penelope, having waited patiently for him despite being pursued by three suitors. Circa’s production latches on to the opera’s themes of longing, absence and desire to return home, but doesn’t necessarily follow the story in a linear way.

It’s the bodies of the circus artists that express the emotion of the story and drive the action of the performance. I’m a huge fan of circus, especially when I get to see it in a context outside of just being incredible feats of human ability. This isn’t acrobatics for the sake of thrilling an audience, it’s movement with intent. There was a lot of partner work between the actors, with lifts, throws and balances that showcased just how strong and skilled each cast member was.

I was most amazed at the use of contortion as a tool to convey the struggle and despair within the story, most likely reflecting how Odysseus would have felt on the journey home. Or how Penelope would have felt not knowing whether her husband was alive or dead. When the circus artists were on stage all together, they created the most intriguing and beautiful shapes. Folding and shifting around each other, each limb it’s own expressive force.

The staging made it easy to focus on the performers. The musicians were off to one side of the stage on a dais, leaving the rest of the stage bare for the acrobats to move freely. A black wall was the only backdrop, used also as a prop for some of the movement sections.

It was the music and opera accompaniment that I think I struggled the most with, and not because I’m not so well-versed in opera. As much as I assumed the entire production would have an operatic soundscape, the two opera singers only sang (what seemed like) four pieces from Monteverdi’s original piece. They sounded wonderful, though my Italian is nowhere near good enough to decipher what they were saying. I loved the juxtaposition between the ethereal movement of the circus artists and the robust vocals of the opera, but I know I would have gotten more out of that if I knew what they were singing.

Between the opera and the brief bouts of live baroque music, Quincy Grant’s additional recorded music was a lonely, ambient soundscape that included callbacks to the baroque style with digital distortion. I thought it was pretty cool and somehow lent a sense of place to the piece, as though the performers were all still being tossed on a reckless sea.

I’m not sure I felt much cohesion between the opera, the live musicians and the digitized soundscape, however. It almost felt unbalanced. I wonder what it would have been like to have had the whole show performed to opera, or to strip the opera out entirely.

I wanted to love this show, but I did find it rather challenging to follow. I think I was trying too hard to orient myself to the story it was adapted from, and less on letting myself roll with the emotional tale weaved by the circus artists. If you’re looking for that challenge, love the fusion of performance genres or are open to experiencing something completely different, I would recommend this.

Details:

  • The Return is playing until May 7, 2017 at the Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front St E)
  • Shows run Friday at 7pm, Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 1pm with a post-show talkback at 2:30pm
  • Ticket prices range from $35-114
  • Tickets can be purchased online

Members of the Circa Ensemble in The Return photographed by Chris Herzfeld.

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