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February 26, 2024
An inside look at Bobby B. Beacon’s insides. Illustrated by Bianca Oppedisano/ Mass Media Staff.
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February 26, 2024

Death (and Life) Under the Big Top

Death (and Life) Under the Big Top

Corteo has all the elements I’ve come to expect in a Cirque du Soleil show: elaborate sets and costumes, death-defying trapeze and aerial gymnastic acts, a high-minded conceptual framework, and eclectic music in languages I don’t understand but still enjoy. What is doesn’t have is the sense of drama or of taking itself so seriously like other Cirque shows I’ve seen.

Corteo starts with the death of a clown. Death is taken very lightly throughout the production: the clown imagines his funeral taking place in a carnival atmosphere, watched over by caring and somewhat mischievous angels. Corteo, which means “cortege” in Italian, is a joyous procession or a festive parade.

The stage is in the center of the big top, with most action taking place along a single strip of stage which begins and ends in curtained off ramps to either side.

The opening of the show has a surrealistic feeling reminiscent of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the beginning, the clown rises from his death-bed, led by ‘angels’ who descend from the ceiling. The angels are accompanied by fairy-like acrobats who begin to swing, twist, hang, and spin from three chandeliers that descend around the clown’s bed. Angels bestow wings on the clown; this is followed by hilarious flying lessons in which the clown repeatedly forgets his lessons and plummets towards the stage.

The clown’s ‘mourners’ march from one side of the stage to another, stopping only to dance, cavort, and sing on a stage that rotates. The ‘corteo’ is led by a pair of little persons, one of whom later performs a comedy routine suspended inside a miniature helium balloon rig that bounces all around the tent. (This number proved to be one of the highlights of the show.)

The air balloon sketch is followed by a Punch and Judy parody starring the pair. Seeing little persons in only comedic contexts made me wonder at first whether this was exploitation of their diminutive height. However, when the duo later perform an amazing acrobatic duet, it becomes clear that they have the skills to perform with the best and that their skills are showcased by Cirque and clearly respected by the audience.

Another highlight comes in a hysterical bed-jumping sequence in which two beds are brought out. Tumblers bounce, flip, and spin between the two, occasionally balancing on the brass head and footboards. (The mattresses are in truth trampolines.)

I always go into a circus performance looking for the wires, the rigging, and the lighting. What these remarkable athlete performers do with subtle shifts of body weight and their exquisite senses of timing astounds me, but looking behind the scenes shows the importance of support from the crew. Every piece of equipment must be in just the right place at the right time and must function perfectly. Even though I know that Cirque does its utmost to maximize safety, part of the thrill of a circus is the death-defying risks taken by the performers.

Corteo combines the timing and lightheartedness of comedic acting with the grace and power of the world’s top acrobats. The show transports its audience to a strangely entertaining and funny world between heaven and earth. According to the show’s description, Corteo juxtaposes large with small, comedy with tragedy, perfection with flaws, strength with fragility to “illustrate the portion of humanity that is within each of us.”

The playful and eloquent music carries audiences through a timeless celebration of life and death in harmony, in which “illusion teases reality.” Whether you’re a fan of the circus, high art, dance, or gymnastics, Corteo is a show you shouldn’t dare to miss.

Corteo continues at Suffolk Downs in East Boston through October 15, 2006. Student discounts are available.