Steampunk—the combination of Victorian and science fiction styles—never had its mainstream breakthrough, and yet at the same time it feels played out. This contradiction means that context is important: at a bar in Bushwick, I might roll my eyes at top hats or driving goggles. But in Cirque du Soleil? It’s a perfect fit.
Kurios, the steampunk show currently running in a big top on Randalls Island, makes the smart choice of breaking from Cirque du Soleil’s recent trend towards a cohesive narrative. The advertising copy will tell you it is about “an ambitious inventor who defies the laws of time, space and dimension in order to reinvent everything around him,” but this is a description of tone more than content. In addition to top hats and driving goggles, Kurios features a mimed steam-engine train, a giant mechanical hand, and a brass, spherical contraption that hangs from one of the acrobat’s bellies and houses another, smaller acrobat inside. These may indeed be the products of an ambitious inventor, but it doesn’t particularly matter.
With the exception of a few words here or there, Kurios is silent, and it evokes both the humor of Chaplin and the expressionist aesthetic of early, German filmmakers. One scene is dedicated to something we have “never seen before,” an invisible circus, with objects moving as if they were being manipulated by men and animals as a ringmaster looks on in fear. Channeling typical carnival barker bravado, he announces “the impossible leap of faith.” After a loud splat is broadcast throughout the theater, he deadpans, “It was impossible.” Another scene depicts an aristocratic dinner party, whose reflection can be seen on the ceiling as acrobats in identical clothing mime their actions upside down. However, I found myself most enchanted by “Hand Theater,” in which Nico Baixas acts out a short film entirely with his—no surprise here—hands and is able to find an impressive breadth of story and emotion without the use of any words or facial gestures.
Cirque du Soleil can occasionally feel corporate rather than whimsical—Kurios, in fact, begins with a recitation of its sponsors. But this untethered production, aided by gorgeous costumes, sentimental Russian romance songs, and some truly curious props, is a step back in the right direction. After all, we don’t go to the circus for pathos but for wonder.