Cirque du Soleil has evolved from charming circus nouveau into a showbiz behemoth. In its 30th anniversary year, with a roster of shows touring the world and running in Las Vegas, the Cirque concept — acrobats, clowns, glam costumes, live music, rock-concert lighting, mythic pretensions — can’t help but flirt with self-parody.
“Amaluna,” at National Harbor through Sept. 21, doesn’t avoid that pitfall. It embraces it and moves on.
All the Cirque du Soleil tropes come out to play, but they weave into a glittery riff on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” With no programs, dialogue or lyrics, audiences can be forgiven if they don’t catch all the references. That won’t impede their enjoyment.
“Amaluna” spins and twirls handsomely, even if all the meanings that director Diane Paulus and her team used to undergird the piece don’t come across so clearly. Paulus, a Tony winner and noted re-imaginer of musicals (“Pippin,” “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” “Hair”), runs the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) at Harvard. She has cited Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” and Greek and Norse mythology as other inspirations for “Amaluna.”
With a 70 percent female cast and musicians who are all women, “Amaluna” has been publicized as a tribute to all things female, not only in its casting, but also in its celebrations of balance, parenting and love. Well, maybe. It does, perhaps, evoke a gentler fantasy with a female force at its center.
Under Cirque du Soleil’s yellow and blue big top, as audience members settle into their seats, a long-tailed lizard-man, Cali (Viktor Kee), a trickster named for Caliban in “The Tempest,” climbs up a tower and tosses popcorn at the audience. Women in yellow headgear and sea-blue costumes — half-leotard, half-bustier — roam the aisles. (These Elizabethans-in-the-tropics costumes and fanciful headdresses by Mérédith Caron are works of art in themselves.)
An abstract glade of curved, multicolor “branches” arc across and around the stage. In the center sits a water-filled glass cauldron with room for a performer to take a dip now and then. Enter the conjurer-in-chief, Prospera (Julie McInnes), who also vocalizes with the instrumentalists, though never with words. This is her magical island, where she has raised her grown daughter Miranda (Iuliia Mykhailova).
Women acrobats, some in peacock capes, gather round. A moon goddess (Andréanne Nadeau) on a flying crescent drifts downward. All is set for Prospera’s plan, a storm that will shipwreck a boatload of men, one of whom, Romeo (Evgeny Kurkin), will be Miranda’s love. The story unfolds amid acrobatics, balancing acts, clowning and a comeuppance for Cali.
Although not as gasp-inducing as some Cirque du Soleil shows, “Amaluna” displays plenty of high-end athleticism. But that element shares the oxygen with narrative, atmospherics and purely musical moments, such as when McInnes as Prospera picks up a cello or sax and joins the other musicians to rock the place.
A couple of performers earn pure awe: Kurkin’s Romeo clambers up a tall pole, hands-only. Twice. He then slides back down, headfirst and fast, stopping with his crown barely an inch from the floor.
Lili Chao Rigolo does a hypnotic balancing act in silence but wears a mike so the audience can hear her trancelike breathing. Picking up bamboo branches of varying lengths with her toes, she transfers them to her hands, then slowly balances them into a large mobile. An audience holds its breath, watching her.
The lone element that throws “Amaluna” slightly off-kilter is, surprisingly, the clowning. Deeda (Shereen Hickman), a bumptious figure in a peasant dress, red nose and braids, falls for Jeeves (Nathalie Claude), a servant shipwrecked along with the other men. He looks like a goofy pirate, with a foot-long red mustache. They giggle and tickle and have multiple babies, but the harder they worked last Friday afternoon, the more polite the laughs. We waited for the acrobatics, romance and glitz to resume.
Horwitz is a freelance writer.
Directed by Diane Paulus. Director of creation, Fernand Rainville; acrobatic equipment and rigging, Fred Gérard; scenery, Scott Pask; lighting, Matthieu Larrivée; choreography, Karole Armitage; acrobatic performance, Rob Bollinger; music, Guy Dubuc and Marc Lessard; sound, Jacques Boucher. $45 -$275. About 2 hours 10 minutes, including a 25-minute intermission. Presented through Sept. 21 at National Harbor. Visit www.cirquedusoleil.com/amaluna or call 1-800-450-1480.