Addled Muse Fire Theater: Purgatoire
Saturday, April 15
Durham Central Park, Durham

Theater begets theater, dance begets dance. After a group of artists honing their craft coalesce around a director, choreographer, or company, they branch out to start practices of their own. The same is true of cirque and flow arts; a brief online search now finds more than half a dozen regional groups and practitioners devoted to the style of eccentric aerial and land-based acrobatics and choreography originally championed locally by Raleigh’s Cirque de Vol.

Last Saturday, on a perfect night under the stars in Durham’s Central Park, the first public performance by a new cirque collective, Addled Muse Fire Theater, promised to further catalyze the region’s community of practice. As shadows lengthened during the opening acts, Katie and Kaci, two nimble performers from Imagine Circus, engaged in partnered acrobatics with weight-sharing choreography. Brittany Storm from Lux Performance Arts did a brief hand-balancing exhibition.

Then, Addled Muse—the company of Alexandra Simpson, Kelley Carey, and Erica Wagner—enlisted an onstage cast of fifteen and a crew of designers and technicians to tell a story of lovers tested in the afterlife. From a vintage sofa at a corner of the stage, a septet of performers embodying the seven deadly sins gazed on with increasing interest as an unseen host with a gruff Cockney voice narrated an amateurish opening video that depicted the budding relationship and the improbably goofy deaths of protagonists Fallon D’Elisio and Adam Phillips.

When the two awake in Purgatory, the seven deadlies tempt them in individual sequences of varying coherence. In Gluttony, Aaron Kirn and Meli Markham toast the couple at a sumptuous banquet table amid suave displays of—what else?—fire-eating, before Robin Bryant’s aerial embodiment of Lust emphasized its elusiveness, leaving Phillips clutching a silk robe instead of the woman he desires.

But it was hard to connect the double stave work of Adam Klesitz and Christine Cooper to the concept of Greed, and occasionally, ad hoc staging in Sloth and Wrath left us wondering where to focus as different acts unfolded simultaneously at different places on the stage.

It takes months to years of practice to develop the cirque skills we saw in Purgatoire, and respect is due those who publicly place their bodies on the line to this degree. Molly Chopin and Alexa Chumpitaz’s radically imaginative makeup and Klesitz’s original music added to the ambiance of Emily Wimbush’s baroque set design and the group’s eye-popping costumes.

But now that these emerging artists clearly have their techniques well in hand, their next steps should involve work with coaches versed in physicalized acting and mime to help them tell their tales more clearly and add believability to certain characters. Stage directors could help them focus scenes more effectively as well. Thankfully, there’s no shortage of either in this area.

The audience warmly applauded moments of spectacle throughout the brief evening, including Simpson’s trapeze work; the ground-based acrobatics of D’Elisio and Phillips; and Kalyn Ruth and Cooper’s five-finger fire fans. Brady Jester’s gravity-defying devil sticks and Nina Wagner’s blast-radius approach to fire breathing fully earned the crowd’s appreciation. As variety and circus acts go, they basically stand on their own.

But merging cirque with theater ultimately requires that both elements be equally strong. Addled Muse has one down pat; we look forward to seeing how they will develop the other.