In Irvine, ‘PSY' puts circus performers right in your lap
Quebec circus dazzles in intimate show
Think of the Quebec-based performance group Les 7 Doigts de la Main as a pocket-size, stripped-down version of Cirque du Soleil meant for a small venue – Cirque unplugged.
And think of "PSY," which opened Thursday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre for a short run, as a condensed Cirque du Soleil show with a brain. The clowning, acrobats, acting and dancing are all performed by the same people – no single-skill stars here – and unlike Cirque du Soleil's meandering, disappearing show plots, the story imbues every aspect of this show.
Ironically, for all its physicality and daring, "PSY" is about human weaknesses – the mental and emotional kind. Its 11 performers (eight men and three women) each play a character with an issue: fear of heights, insomnia, hypochondria, and so on. In a series of sometimes astoundingly athletic routines, they conquer their weaknesses.
But like a Cirque du Soleil show, the story ultimately doesn't matter that much. It provides set-ups for certain absurd situations and motivations for characters, but it's soon clear this is a demonstration of various circus tricks, expertly executed by the young performers.
Still, those characters are endearing, and their problems get them into some daunting situations.
Tiny Catherine Girard plays a woman with a serious sleep disorder. She carries a pillow around with her and naps in the craziest places. Her routine culminates on a pole, where she manages to nod off, pillow tucked under her head, in precarious and gravity-defying poses high in the air.
Danica Gagnon-Plamondon plays a nervous young woman whose fear of heights is miraculously (and illogically) conquered when she is persuaded by the others to experiment with a few moves on the trapeze. She ends up scaring them and us in an astounding display of balance and nerve (the faint of heart needn't worry, Gagnon-Plamondon wears a safety harness).
The show works even if you don't remember who has what affliction and how they defeat it. The performers are virtuosi, and you quickly become mesmerized.
Julien Silliau's mastery of the wheel needs no context. His aesthetic is one of the most fluid and beautifully choreographed I've ever seen. His act is also strangely sexy; a few women sighed when he removed his shirt halfway through the act.
Curly-haired Nael Jammal is an expert at balancing on his hands atop short poles, but he gives this familiar routine a twist: he wears a white mask on the back of his head, creating an unnerving creature that looks at us constantly during the act.
Olga Kosova, who plays a fiery woman with anger-management issues, knows how to handle and throw knives (not a great hobby for someone with a hair-trigger temper). But her tour de force is a high-energy performance twisting and balancing on a rope that stretches to the rafters. It's a high-stakes wrestling match, and you never doubt who will win. Kosova even grabs the lifeless rope triumphantly at the end after it falls to the floor like the carcass of a beast she has just killed.
"PSY" Is filled with beautiful moments that combine ingenious scenic design and unusual displays of traditional circus skills.
The performers make vigorous use of a three-story structure for an extended juggling routine that has to be seen to be believed. Florent Lestage is the company's talented resident juggler but they're all experts, and at certain points you lose count of the number of pins in the air as tricks intersect and performers interrupt each other's acts.
Director Shana Carroll keeps the pacing tight, and "PSY" is full of dramatic changes of energy and focus, aided by Julien Lanthier's rich and sometimes haunting soundscape. You won't always know what's going on, but Carroll and her performers make sure that you're never bored.
There's something viscerally thrilling about seeing this kind of bravura performing at close quarters. When André Farstad signals that he's ready to be launched halfway into space on the teeterboard, the look on his face is anything but playful. This is serious work, and you can see the sweat as well as the smiles.
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