Editorial Review

'Ovo' at National Harbor: Cirque du Soleil lays a pretty good egg

By Nelson Pressley
Friday, September 10, 2010

"Oh, no," is not an unreasonable reaction to the early moments of "Ovo," the extravaganza now perched on the Plateau at National Harbor. Performers in alarmingly bright, extremely silly rubbery suits make nonsense sounds ("Zzzzt!" "Thththth-pt!") and dance like they've just infested a third-rate nightclub. They are meant to be insects, and you fear that the great Cirque du Soleil, always hunting for fresh themes upon which to hang its stunning acrobatics, has finally scraped bottom.

Never fear. Once the troupe's world-class acts begin their dazzling tricks, it really doesn't matter what they're wearing or what the gimmick is. Forget, for instance, that Vladimir Hrynchenko is supposed to be a firefly, which sort of explains the sheer outer pants over his aquamarine tights. It's enough that he is balancing himself on one hand, gripping a very small block screwed into the top of a sloping green metal pole, striking one splendid pose after another. The strength is awe-inspiring. And who knows, maybe the superhero cut of the shiny blue costume helps.

To be fair, there is an appealing innocence to "Ovo," and it's incredibly easy to warm to the show (which was written, directed and choreographed by Deborah Colker). The title is Portuguese for "egg," and indeed the design features a large glowing egg that fascinates Colker's bizarre colony of characters. The action is full of becoming and emerging: a chrysalis that slowly emerges from the floor is marvelous, and so is the aerial dance on a swinging rope that follows between a pair of butterflies (the sublimely graceful Maxim Kozlov and Inna Mayorova). The butterfly bit is both demanding and gorgeous, with an undercurrent of affection that's enchanting.

When a frivolous sextet of foot jugglers races on to spin and kick giant hunks of fruit and vegetables in the air while lying on their backs, it's hard not be in thrall to the unexpected antics. These women are ants (tight red costumes, weird little handles sticking out from their heads -- of course!). So they're ants: whatever. Just watch the huge slices of kiwi they flip like gangsters' coins, each improbable toss right on the money. Feet only, people, and FAST.

That's the circus: tricks you'd never think of, polished to a high shine and executed with fabulous precision. A hazard is that the good shows -- and this is one -- inevitably run the risk of making really difficult acts look too easy. Take the strong fellows on the tiny platform high above the stage: They seem like they could catch the bodies somersaulting at them from trapezes all day. Still, during Wednesday night's opening, they coolly made several highlight-worthy grabs of tossed bodies that nearly came up short.

The same goes for Li Wei, whose slack-wire act (it's a loose tightrope) almost seems like something you might want to try yourself, until he does it upside down, on a unicycle, with his face in the seat.

Although the ladybug's amusing costume with inner tubes around the midriff is easily the best in show (followed by the slinky spiderwear sported by the spectacular contortionists), the clowning between this ladybug and two unidentifiable fantasy bugs is sometimes sluggish. That's a particular problem with Cirque du Soleil; its upscale image and price point make you feel everything has to be smashing, and though these clowns eventually improvised expertly with Wednesday's audience, the scripted slapstick and gibberish can be wearying.

Likewise, the energy -- keyed by likable Brazilian music from composer Berna Ceppas -- ranges from delightfully laid-back to dangerously understated, until an exciting, near-ecstatic finish involving trampolines and a climbing wall. Magnificence is the standard for Cirque du Soliel, and "Ovo" is not consistently glorious. It's awfully good, though, thanks to some brilliant, highly disciplined people who excel at turning stunts into art.

Written, directed and choreographed by Deborah Colker. Costumes, Liz Vandal; set and prop design, Gringo Cardia; lights, Eric Champoux; sound design, Jonathan Deans. About 2 1/2 hours.