REVIEW: Hephaestus, A Greek Circus Tale (Lookingglass)

A stunning display of physical artistry

hephaestus-7-man-pyramid

 
Lookingglass Theatre and Silverguy Entertainment presents
 
Hephaestus, A Greek Circus Tale
 
Adapted from the Greek myth by Tony Hernandez
Directed by
Tony Hernandez and Heidi Stillman
at the
Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through May 23rd  tickets: $25-$70  |  more info

By Catey Sullivan

Move over Billy Elliot. There’s a new kid in town, and he’s flying – without wires or harnesses – just a few blocks west of where the famed coal miner’s son is hoofing the light fantastic. ‘Tis the season, apparently, for jaw-droppingly talented pre-pubescent boys. In Hephaestus, a Greek Mythology Circus Tale, ninth-generation 39-iris7 circus performer Fabio Anastasini plays a show-stopping role as the Lookingglass/Silver Guy telling of the Greek myth biography of the God of the Forge unfurls. Flipping and flying so fast he’s a centrifugal blur while his partner (and older brother) flings him skyward on the soles of his feet, Fabio is a dazzling highlight in a series of dazzlers that comprise Hephaestus’ 90 breathtaking minutes.

Imagine the very best acts of Cirque du Soleil, played out in a space so small you could reach out and grab the acrobats as they fly by. (Don’t even think about it.) Oh – and there’s no net. Also – nobody is wearing a harness or any sort of other safety rigging. When a seven-person human pyramid makes its way across the high wire during the show’s climactic finale, it’s as if all the oxygen has been sucked out of the Goodman’s tiny Owen Theatre. You can feel the audience collectively holding its breath. Cell phone rings aren’t just an aggravation during this show – they pose a very real danger. Knock wood – were any of the aerialists to lose their concentration during Hephaestus, the results could be deadly.

Not that there’s much chance of that. Tony Hernandez’ version of myth is enacted by the world’s elite circus performers, Flying Wallendas among them. These aren’t part-time buskers on summer break. They’re the best wire-walkers, acrobats, contortionists and stunt men and women on the planet. They’d be thrilling to watch 001731 under any circumstances. But in the intimate space of the Owen, they’re simply staggering. Get a seat in the third level of the courtyard space, and you’ll find yourself going eyeball-to-eyeball with that mind-blowing pyramid that ends the show. And prior to that, with Ares (Almas Miermanov) the God of War, as played by an impossibly chiseled gymnast doing his routine several stories up on the ends of furls of silk.

Since Hernandez (who also plays the title role with great emotional impact) debuted Hephaestus in 2005, he has tweaked it slightly. Aphrodite has lost her gleaming hula hoops and turned into a toe-dancing contortionist. A two-man hand-balancing act is now a single, silvery, spooky machine-man pulled by Hephaestus from the fires of his desert island forge. Then there’s the addition of the Anastasini brothers, who also start life as liquid metal beings formed by Hephaestus from molten metal. They’re a thrilling improvement.

The show’s primary flaw remains its narrative. The adaptation of Hephaestus’ myth is a flimsy coathanger draped in circus garments so richly spectacular you tend to first forgive and then forget that the myth even matters. Still, the individual acts could be put into the service of any story, and don’t feel especially integral to the story of Hephaestus.

Even so, there are moments when the story resonates powerfully. When his mother hurls Hephaestus from Mount Olympus, the fall is a gasp-inducing triumph of stagecraft and stuntwork. It’s a signature Lookingglass moment – the sort of indelible physical storytelling that nobody does better. The towering (Literally towering. There are drummers all the way up to the theater’s scaffolding) , immersive percussion makes you feel as if you are in a grand canyon echoing with drums, surrounded by an urgent, primal beat that drowns everything else out but the pure, raw, power of rhythm.

aphro-and-heph2 001748
39-iris7 001879 001819

As Hephaestus’ mother Hera, Lijana Wallenda Hernandez is an ethereal stunner, spinning high above the audience in a silver hoop. When Hephaestus falls to the bottom of an enchanted sea, the theater turns into a murky green eden of nymphs and bubbles hovering with liquid grace everywhere you turn. It’s an underwater paradise almost enough to make you weep at its watery, calming beauty.

And lest you discount that 7-person pyramid as just another circus stunt: Wallenda and Hernandez were among the artists who pioneered the act, and got it into the Guinness Book of World Records in 1998. In other words, it’s a form of dangerous beauty that they actually invented. It was largely considered impossible before they did it. Watching Hephaestus, much of it seems impossible. The artistry is just that stunning.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

NOTE: Many of these pictures were taken from previous years’ performances.

63-bungee1

 

4 Responses

  1. Hello. That photo is not us, it is actually my wife’s uncles version of the 7 person pyramid act. They are also linked in the review under The Flying Wallendas, I would appreciate it if the link opened up http://www.hephaestuscircus.com. I would appreciate it if you could change the photo to that of the one in our press release, or the one they use in the Chicago Tribune review. The two sides of the family are only associated by name, but operate and perform separately.

    Myself and Nik Wallenda put this pyramid troupe together.

    I appreciate it!

    -TH

  2. What happened? Thought you said you would change this? I and I’m sure the Flying Wallendas would appreciate it!

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