Jan 9, 2015 Theatre
Daldy St, Wynyard Quarter
January 8, 2015
Let’s say right off that you’ll see things done with bananas in this show you have probably never seen on stage – or anywhere else – before. Done, moreover, by a pair of sex-obsessed clowns who are unfailingly lively, provocative and extremely funny every time they take the stage. They’re great.
There’s also a winsome acrobatic contortionist who appears to have a hinge in the middle of her spine; roller skaters who defy death (theirs and ours) as he spins and she holds fast, flying around him; a guy who rolls around on the floor inside hoops, in a quite beautiful display of timing, gravity and momentum; more acrobats; and an excellent singer accompanied by an excellent guitarist.
There’s also Memet Bilgin, who specialises in balancing acts. At the climax of the show he takes to the stage with a feather and 14 long curved spines from the fronds of a palm tree, and does something so mesmerising and so freighted with the risk of failure, it becomes one of those truly magical moment of theatre.
Empire also contains hilarious male nudity, women in sexy bras and, for the show’s entire 90 minutes, a parade of male and female bodies so beautiful there should be a health warning nailed to the door. In this American show featuring artists from Turkey, Ukraine, Russia, Australia, Japan and the US, what’s not to like?
Well, there are a few things. Despite what the publicity implies, this kind of show isn’t new or especially unusual, although that doesn’t mean it can’t be fabulous. We’ve seen its like from Cirque du Soleil, and in the cabaret-circuses presented in the spiegeltents of the Auckland Arts Festival, and among the buskers who descend on New Zealand for their late-summer festival. Among them, they’ve set a pretty high standard.
Even the buskers, the best of whom defy our expectations of what the human mind and body can achieve with skill, courage and a great deal of practice. But that – the exhibition of skill – is not all they do. They are also great entertainers, which is another way of saying great seducers: they know how to make us love them, by making us laugh, building both the pleasure and the suspense, and ulitimately rewarding us with a mind-and-body-boggling cathartic climax.
And when artists take all this indoors and put it into a full-length, structured show, they have to go even further. We want shape, dramatic tension and resolution, some kind of theme to unite the show, and we want to see things we haven’t seen routinely in other shows like this.
Empire gives us the great finale, for sure, but it is half-hearted about too much of the rest. The acrobatic contortionist, Lucia Carbines, knows how to look seriously cute and she has one tremendous act, performed in a bubble high above the stage, but on her next outing she does little else but reprise the same display of flexibility and grace, in a floor show.
A trio of Ukrainian acrobats are billed as the “Gorilla Girls”, so they take the stage in black underwear and gorilla masks. But the gorilla thing means nothing: they promptly throw away the masks and go through a very standard pyramid routine. The act is half-thought-out.
The show is supposedly “about New York”, but after announcing that it doesn’t try to say anything at all about the city. The music is a compendium of songs, often New York-themed (“New York, New York” is in there, of course, and Leonard Cohen) but with little musical coherence. Again, “We’ll do a ‘New York’ show and chuck in a bunch of New York songs” is, at best, half an idea.
And what are they doing with a singer and guitarist while all the rest of the music is recorded? This is a live show, for heaven’s sake, in a gorgeous spiegeltent, and for all of the talents of Ashley Loren and Andy Bianco they – and we – deserve a live band featuring creative arrangements, multi-instrumentalist virtuosity, a bit of a stagey routine of their own. Instead, Empire gives us another half idea.
There’s a presentiment of all this right at the start, as the audience finds its seats and the cast mill about, lightly interacting with the crowd. Strangely, they’re not funny or titillating or at all exciting. They’re not trying to seduce us, and when the show proper starts, with the exception of those clowns (the marvellous Anne Goldman and Jonathan Taylor) they don’t try then either.
This, at heart, is the strength and weakness of Empire. There is much to like amid all these demonstrations of physical skill, and for the best of them it’s well worth seeing. But this is showtime, and that should mean creating the illusion of loving your crowd, and getting us to love you – and not just showing us your stuff.
Empire runs until January 22. empirenz.com