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Cirque du Soleil's Corteo

Bring in the Clowns

Before Cirque du Soleil's Bay Area premiere of their show Corteo, I had a fairly tenebrous vision of what the flamboyant French-Canadian troupe would regale us with. "Corteo" is Italian for funeral procession, and from the tacit description on the company's website, the framework of the performance is a clown's deathbed ruminations. I was thrilled at the idea of dark processions, carnivalesque sortilege, and the old-school diabolical allure one might still find under a big top these days. However, while the show is full of baroque spectacles and vintage commedia dell'arte shenanigans, Corteo is less Fellini's vision of hell (hedonistic and full of gamboling satyrs, I imagine) than it is frolicsome fun for the whole family.

Corteo stems from the dramatic genius of Italo-Swiss artist Daniele Finzi Pasca, a Folies Bergere savant with an eye for decadence and glamour. While the show dispenses with the high couture that Cirque fans have been eating up for decades, Finzi Pasca and set designer Jean Rabasse compensate for the lackluster habiliments with plenty of chandeliers and flashy painted curtains. Finzi Pasca's dramatic decision to divide the audience -- with half the spectators facing the other half, while the action takes place in the middle -- creates a dazzling tableau vivant in and of itself.

The opening sequence features a cavalcade of acrobats, ruffians, and harlequins gone wild -- all of whom seem to emerge from the fever dreams of the dying clown (played by Mauro Mozzani). The image of angels floating on wires above the dying man's bed, juxtaposed against the impish, almost Mephistophelian procession of characters seeking to keep him earthbound, is gorgeous and archetypal. While it tacitly promises deliciously gothic entertainment, however, the idea of the "cortege" is quickly swallowed up by a mishmash of standard acts: trapeze artists, rope dancers, tightrope walkers, jugglers, and the like.

The aerial and gymnastic acts form the spine of the show, and while the dramatic interludes feature whimsical absurdist sequences of the flying (dying) clown and his idiosyncratic mourners, the framework rapidly descends into a series of repetitious acrobatic feats. All the same, several acts -- particularly the silly, quaint ones that make good use of old-fashioned Pulcinello-style highjinks -- are standouts. Uzeyer Novrusov's daring traversal of the stage with the use of an unsupported ladder scores wild applause, and the caesura in which a diminutive woman harnessed to a bunch of colossal balloons glides smoothly into the audience is both strange and beautiful.

While Corteo is as ethereal as you might imagine any hippodrome extravaganza would be, the angels who randomly float into each scene and gaze omnisciently on the performers seem a bit out of place -- especially considering that the dying clown's story gradually becomes merely a peripheral theme in the show. All the same, few circuses are untouched by the implications of darkness and mystery that make us crave their sorcery, and when the humor borders on peril and ambiguity, Corteo casts a spell that can't be easily shaken off.

Corteo plays through January 8 at SBC Park.