Thirty-eight-year-old Aurélia Thierrée grew up in the circus, and she has the rubber-band body to prove it. Her new show, Aurélia's Oratorio — which runs through January 24 at Berkeley Rep — comprises seventy minutes of body contortions and optical illusions, done in a Frenchy cirque nouveau style that dates back to the 1970s. Conceived by Aurélia's mother Victoria Chaplin Thierrée (the daughter of another famous Chaplin), the show occurs in a dream world where all actions defy natural law: Body parts disconnect, a woman sets her clothes out to dry and then sloshes them with a watering can, inanimate objects come to life. It's a show of tricks and "aha" moments, scraped clean of narrative but given a sequential arc nonetheless. And, like a dream, it flies by.
To achieve that sense of whimsy requires an utterly blank canvas — something you seldom see at Berkeley Repertory Theater. In this case, the furnishings are sparse, but every set detail has functional and aesthetic importance. Thierrée begins with a black background framed by vampiric red curtains, as thought to represent a primal emotional state. In the opening, we see a brass coat rack, a stool, a vase, and a chest of drawers with smoke billowing out — apparently from a single cigarette. A telephone bleats insistently from somewhere offstage. A hand creeps out of a drawer, grabs a red pump, and places it on a foot that emerges from another drawer. The phone call goes directly to voice mail. The hand creeps out again to grab a cupcake, then lights a candlestick in a brass holder, then places the candle atop the chest. The caller leaves a message in French. Hands and feet keep peeping out until finally Aurélia materializes, folded up like a pretzel. With arms outstretched and feet overhead, she makes a tight space seem to expand.
It's an apt beginning for a show that's about reconfiguration. Everything is inverted in Aurélia's universe. She performs a puppet show for an audience of puppets. She hails a taxi and two footmen arrive, bearing an upside-down chair that looks like a pagoda; Aurélia attaches herself to the bottom with her feet curled over her head. She holds a Japanese fan to her face and shakes her head back and forth. At first glance, it's easy to mistake Aurélia for an Audrey Tatou-type character. She's red-haired, limber, and cute in a feline way. But from the very first scene, Aurélia establishes herself as a clown with sophistication. The red pumps and cigarette work toward this end, as does the cupcake that disappears into a drawer and emerges half-eaten. Indeed, there's an interior life contained within this chest. Her co-star, Jaime Martinez, is equally bewitching, with his well-sculpted musculature and angular body movements. It's not clear what sort of relationship they have, if any. For much of the show he appears to be chasing her, but she evades capture. They fight over a coat and their spat turns into an elaborate, choreographed tango. At one point they put on a pair of pants together (one leg each), and walk around in perfect synchronicity.
That's the love scene, albeit a sublimated one. In reality, Aurélia and Jaime seduce their audience rather than each other. The idea is to teleport us into a dream world where objects behave in mysterious ways, and everything seems to symbolize something else. A kite flies a woman. A mother cradles a baby doll and sticks a cigarette in its mouth. A mouse scurries across the stage with a dead cat in tow. Some of Aurélia's gags are pure childish fun, but others bear deeper implications about mortality, desire, or the intrusion of technology (in the form of an alarm clock). The point is never to hit us over the head with a message, but coax out meaning in a stream-of-consciousness way.
Perhaps that's asking a lot of an audience accustomed to naturalistic settings or plot-driven narrative. But Aurélia's Oratorio apparently has mooring in many theater traditions — not only in Europe, but also Japan, China, and India. Thierrée uses medieval iconography in the sets to create a pre-rational, pastoral realm. The musical score combines classical chamber music with jazz manouche and tango, as though to recall an older era. It's deliberately anachronistic, but consonant with the dancer's movements and less assaultive than the rock band in Cirque du Soleil. In fairness, Aurélia doesn't really belong to the modern world, either. A scion of the Chaplin lineage, she was hardwired at an early age for this type of material. The title "oratorio" derives from opera and refers to a heightened form of expression. In this case, it's highly personal. The show originated in Victoria Thierrée's mind, but Aurélia is the dreamer who animates it.
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