A circus wunderkind makes a spectacle of himself at Chicago Shakes.
There are no umbrellas in Farewell Umbrella (or Au Revoir Parapluie), but what would be the point anyway? Even a golfer’s jumbo parapluie would be defenseless against a 1,760-pound deluge of 250 thickly coiled ropes.
Those ropes—punctuated with hooks at intervals for precarious perching, and surrounded by billowing walls of black velvet—are the central dangling motif in Umbrella, the latest Dalí-esque spectacle from Swiss physical-theater visionary James Thiérrée. Last seen here two years ago in an all-too-brief run of his previous circus-arts–infused confection, Bright Abyss, Thiérrée returns to Chicago Shakespeare Theater as part of its World’s Stage series Wednesday 21 for nine performances that will likely defy not only gravity, but belief as well.
In Bright Abyss, Thiérrée and his acrobatic cohorts strung together a surreal, wordless series of jaw-dropping vignettes that ranged from the colossal (clambering in and out of a giant, rolling wooden wheel; evoking a maritime crew balanced atop the masts of an ocean-bound schooner with nothing but a suspended metal framework and fanned fabric) to transformative, hilarious spins on the ordinary (friends swallowed up intermittently by a mouthlike sofa; a newspaper that turned into a writhing, living creature when Thiérrée tried to read it).
Umbrella, which features another nimble, multinational ensemble (just five performers) and a similar stream-of-consciousness rhythm, adds some cryptic narration—but decoding its narrative intent is futile, Thiérrée warns. A man, portrayed by Thiérrée, seems to be in pursuit of an elusive woman—but the artist is less interested in a narrative than in atmosphere and the physical dynamics made possible by the thickets of ropes, which at moments in Umbrella seem to hide the male protagonist’s objet d’amor like a fawn in a forest. That is, when the ropes—which often serve more of a sculptural than aerial purpose—aren’t coalescing and swirling above Thiérrée’s head like a cyclone of psychological doom.
“Everything seems to be able to have a metamorphosis,” says Thiérrée, 33, who launched his troupe, La Compagnie du Hanneton, at 24, and has since transformed himself into a force on the international theater circuit. “Everything is not what it seems. It can be a chair, but then it becomes a costume. It can be a costume, but then it becomes a…I don’t know…a weapon,” he says. “But the real beauty, the end of the journey, is when you don’t even need an object anymore. Cirque du Soleil gets amazing artists, but it makes me sad sometimes not to see those artists, to have them covered in this shine of conceptual design, music and marketing. I’m not saying money’s bad. It’s just that you lose fragility, you lose the risk of an artistic proposal. It’s too close to Wall Street.”
Thiérrée can back up that embrace of minimalist pantomime and humanism like few others: He is the grandson of Charlie Chaplin, and his parents—Victoria Chaplin and Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée—pioneered the avant-garde, menagerie-free cirque nouveau movement in the early 1970s in France. Thiérrée didn’t have to run away to join the circus; he was born into one. Long before he packed up and left his parents’ troupe, Cirque Imaginaire, at 17 to work toward putting his third-generation stamp on the family’s circus-arts lineage, he and his kid sister, Aurélia, were playing suitcases that sprouted legs.
Though reluctant to draw the inevitable comparisons to his famous grandfather, who died when he was three, Thiérrée is nonetheless proud to carry the torch forward.
“It is beautiful, this thing that is flowing through generations, the knowledge and love of the art,” he acknowledges. “However, you cannot spend your days thinking about it. You have to project yourself in the future, to listen to the world as it is today and try to react to it, and also be in synchronization with your own life and identity. We are all the result of a lot of things. And I let it out. I let it out, and I don’t restrain anything.”
James Thiérrée opens his Umbrella inside Chicago Shakespeare Wednesday 21.