A crimson, elegantly draped contour curtain frames the stage. But that’s not all: it wiggles and sways, changes shapes and directions, becomes flirtatious, even dances before it goes into a veritable hissy fit finally collapsing upon itself. What fun. I think I want one for our bedroom.
Then there is the next image: a chest of drawers from which various seemingly disconnected body parts appear out of one drawer and then reappear out of another until a whole person eventually emerges from still another drawer having also managed to put on a pair of red high-heeled shoes in the process. She is Aurelia Thierree, the lovely, lithe, and limber centerpiece of “Aurelia’s Oratorio,” a kind of whimsically inventive, magical mini-circus, now playing through Sunday, October 17, at McCarter Theater.
This rather strange but also blissfully brief theatrical encounter incorporates both traditional circus skills with those more inclined to be loopy. Dance, some of it quite macabre, a little mime, and many unpredictable happenings just happen to happen to the always well-prepared Thierree who, nevertheless, maintains a look of astonishment at every turn. Nothing really throws her despite the many objects she encounters that do not necessarily respond or function in the manner that nature or science must have intended.
In fact, the object lesson is that none of the objects, whether they are articles of clothing, a fabric of unending length, puppets, or surreally commissioned body parts, can be expected to stay as they might otherwise be in this inverted, topsy-turvy world imagined by the show’s creator and director, Victoria Thierree Chaplin, who also happens to be Aurelia’s mother.
That Aurelia’s mother is also the daughter of Charlie Chaplin while Aurelia is the great granddaughter of Eugene O’Neill, only impacts genetically in this imagination-intoxicated entertainment where every inanimate thing that isn’t tied down is likely to take on a life of its own even as it can also be persuaded to threaten, confront and otherwise engage Thierree in a series of fantastical feats that generally defy our normal perceptions of reality. Confused?
How about a kite flying a person stuck in a tree, a mouse dragging a cat, an overcoat that can tap dance, and a mother who sucks on a bottle while her baby smokes a cigarette? If you suspect that this entertainment sounds like it might be a bit too precious by far, then guess again. There are terrifying elements that intrude out of a mist, from behind scrims and partitions, as well as down from the rafters, that will surely remind some of you of your first encounter with the perverse and threatening illusions that Lewis Carroll’s Alice encountered on the other side of the looking glass. At least Alice didn’t have to sew back her leg, as does Aurelia, after it’s been bitten off by a ravenous crocodile.
Don’t be concerned if at first you feel yourself somewhat muddled, indeed mystified, by what is going on in front of your eyes. It’s purposely targeted to confound you. Just how far Thierree will go to make you distrust what you know is captured in the closely entwined relationship she shares on stage with the show’s other significantly featured performer, Jaime Martinez, a versatile mime/dancer who serves Thierree as a provocateur, a foil, and as a partner. Amid plenty of costume changes that are uncannily executed, they dance quite beautifully together, notably a marvelous tango all the while a coat they both covet gets transferred rather aggressively from him to her and back again.
Shadow puppets and marionettes comprise a good portion of the show, which lasts all of 70 minutes. There is a nightmarish aspect to their presence that I probably found more disturbing than will others, particularly a sexual advance upon her by a rather lascivious-looking puppet. But I’ve always found puppets and marionettes more of a menacing than a merry lot.
The graceful Thierree is as at ease in the air on a trapeze as she is on the stage conducting a symphonic composition performed by alarm clocks. Her coup de theatre is a speeding electric train, whose astonishing path will remain undisclosed by this critic. My main complaint would be the occasional use of dialogue, a jarring intrusion that breaks the spell created by this body-language-propelled presentation. There’s nothing spoken that we need to hear.
So why is it called an Oratorio? There is nothing in the show that supports the definition of that word in the dictionary: a lengthy choral work usually of a religious nature consisting chiefly of recitatives, arias, and choruses without action or scenery.
Ironically, “Aurelia’s Oratorio” has scenery and action. The absence of conversation or plot is more defining, but there are streaks of madness. There is no perceptible continuity, but there is considerable form and, of course, without substance. There are also no rhymes, but plenty of reasons to say I’m just having fun watching it all happen. . .whatever it is.
“Aurelia’s Oratorio” has evolved out of a tradition of intimately and intricately conceived circus acts begun by her parents (“Cirque Imaginaire” and “Cirque Invisible”). That this show, which has been touring the world for the past five years, has its own nature is not only natural but admirable.
“Aurelia’s Oratorio,” through Sunday October 17, Berlind Theater at McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, $20 to $65. 609-258- 2787.