In Wonderland

Doe-eyed and whimsically French, Aurélia Thierrée has fallen down a rabbit hole into the fantasyland of acrobatic illusions. “Aurélia’s Oratorio” is a topsy-turvy dreamworld that would make Alice smile.

In just 70 minutes, Thierrée trapezes over circus acts while still leveraging a Barnum and Bailey feel to create a kid-friendly spectacle. The only problem is that her world is cute at best. Somewhere between its vaudeville yore throwback and trapeze act, the show falls flat. It’s sort of like when two red splotches on a canvas look like nothing special, and yet, cost millions. Still, its foray into circus nouveau makes Thierrée’s abstract and practically dialogue-void performance an amusing new way to look at the world.

Irrespective of the show’s own merits, performance is Thierrée’s birthright. She boasts a pedigree that’s hard to match, a punch of credibility for the show. The great-granddaughter of playwright Eugene O’Neil, Thierrée strays far from his trademark realism, indulging instead in a purely imaginative dreamscapes where clothes come to life. What she does inherit in “Oratorio,” though, is the pantomime of silent film pioneer Charlie Chaplin, whom she is privileged to call Granddaddy.

Similarly, Thierrée’s own parents have left an imprint on performance history, and it was in their surreal world of traveling circuses that she discovered her own calling as early as age three, touring as a walking suitcase entertainer. Jean-Baptiste Thierrée and Victoria Thierrée Chaplin (incidentally, the director of “Oratorio”) started the world-renowned Le Cirque Imaginaire and Le Cirque Invisible, precedents for the more flamboyant Cirque du Soleil.

Inspired by medieval drawings that depict the world upside down and inside out, “Oratorio” is a tightrope act that balances nonsensical images with large-scale dance numbers and a swiveling stage. The paradoxes that flood the production give rise to a distinct dimension where kites fly people, ice cream is scalding hot and feeding babies with cigarettes in lieu of milk is kosher. A mouse scampers across the stage with a dead cat in tow, while Aurélia’s lullaby is the rattling of alarm clocks, and roses go into a vase bud-down, stem-up.

“Oratorio’s” attempt at ingenuity comes to the forefront in the most memorable of its scenes when Aurélia finds herself behind a lace curtain, made of lace herself. As if in Eden, she muses beneath a tree until a lace snake comes along and she loses her leg. Swiftly, she pulls out her knitting needles and sutures herself back up. Aurélia then plays Ann Darrow to a King Kong of lace, who cradles her and then dies in a lace blizzard in an attempt to save her.

What this pastiche of juxtapositions and random tidbits amounts to is left ambiguous by the lack of a coherent storyline. The only apparent motif is dancing partner Jaime Martinez’s reappearance as a man (or perhaps, a lover) in search of the mischievous Aurélia. In some of the performance’s most enchanting moments, Martinez bends forward onto the stage with Aurélia’s red pumps in place of gloves, dancing to salsa music. Later, Martinez transforms into a brilliant marionette puppeteer, who is dragged across the stage and beaten up by a floating coat.

Far from seamless, the magic tricks in “Oratorio” are, for the most part, readily transparent. But the point is not to decipher how the tricks are done. Thierée lets slip just enough for us to realize that there’s a ladder behind the curtain and, more explicitly, that there are dummy limbs in her opening act. Instead, “Oratorio” invites us to a make-believe world with the airy tunes of a Yann Tiersen-esque soundtrack. We don’t quite get caterpillars smoking hookahs and puffing vowels, but Thierrée’s world certainly is a wonderland of sorts.

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