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THEATER REVIEW: “Totem” is another winner by Cirque du Soleil

Crystal Man (Joseph Putignano) descends, curled up in glittering silver eight-pound leotard, at the beginning of Cirque du Soleil’s latest traveling show “Totem,” playing through May 13 under the tent at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

The cover is removed from a large turtle-shaped structure onstage, in, on and over which acrobats dressed like primeval amphibians will accomplish Cirque’s familiar trapeze and trampoline feats.

The theme of “Totem” is human evolution, and writer/director Robert Lepage uses myth, legend and a fair amount of American Indian imagery to tell the rather daunting tale – one which will bring man from the primeval slime to business suits and cell phones, via science and a research lab.

We’ve come to depend on Cirque for fanciful costumes and fantastical stories concocted to show off the incredible gymnastic feats of their talented international casts.

In this case, the technical feats required to tell the story almost overshadow the artistry of the acrobats – if that can be imagined.

Upstage, behind what looks to be a real bamboo forest, the six-man band sits. In the center is a structure that can be made to look like a ship (even a space ship), a bridge or a walkway to a sandy beach. Much of early evolution involves the move from water to land, and this design is spectacularly successful in conveying the idea of water. Expert lighting adds to the illusion.

A small boat is rowed around the sandy island from time to time. The music is, well, otherworldly, as is often the case with Cirque shows, but more so this time.

Cirque’s usual “wow” factors are here – superbly trained bodies doing things reason tells us no mere human body can do. Consider the Chinese quartet of Chinese women who kick steel bowls onto each other’s heads from unicycles – a precarious perch at best.

Another favorite act is a charming (not to mention frightening) pas de deux in which Louis-David Simoneau demonstrates how to court a girl (Rosalie Ducharme) on a trapeze.

In another mind-boggling act, the scantily-clad Marina and Svetlana Tsodikova, sporting vaguely Trojan headpieces, lie upside down on chairs and balance fabric disks by twirling with feet, then hands, then both, then tossing them back and forth. It’s a remarkable sight.

The final act – on Russian bars – features nine athletes and flexible long “bars” on which three people jump and do flips – and double flips. It’s simply spectacular.

But other elements are less impressive. Clowns Mykhaylo Usov and Pippi Crotti have far too much stage time and elicit far too few laughs with their unfunny bits.

Hoop dancing is a American Indian tradition, and dancers Eric Hernandez and Shandien Larance are enormously graceful, but too much time is spent on it and too little on the death-defying acts Cirque aficionados come to see.

But Cirque du Soleil is always a welcome event, and “Totem” is no exception.

The details

Cirque du Soleil’s “Totem” plays through May 13 at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, 2260 Jimmy Durante Boulevard in Del Mar.

Tuesday-Saturday at 8 pm; Thursday-Saturday at 4 pm; Sunday at 1 and 5 pm.

For tickets, visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.