By Donna Herman
A mixture of classical dance, opera, theater, circus, and vaudeville, Company XIV’s “Paris” is all spectacle. And much more than the sum of its parts. If you are a purist, looking for an authentic classical experience, this mash-up isn’t for you. Conceived, directed and choreographed by company founder Austin McCormick, the production is a love letter to his signature style, which he’s dubbed “Baroque Burlesque.” His dream in starting Company XIV, named after the French monarch Louis XIV known for the Palace of Versailles, is to create a kind of modern Moulin Rouge in New York City.
There is a ton of talent both on the stage and behind the scenes here, but it’s a very adult entertainment, presented in an unusual manner. It is a completely unique, dazzling, riveting, mash-up of entertainment genres. Don’t expect porn and strippers, but do expect exquisite classically trained dancers and internationally known opera singers, aerialists, acrobats, pop singers, and actors performing at the top of their game in gender-bending roles with very few clothes on. But don’t expect to be titillated, expect to be enchanted.
The performance space in the converted church is set up as a nightclub. Note to the wise, the space is NOT handicapped accessible. You must walk up two flights of stairs to reach the seating area. The massive open space has a stage at one end and elaborate chandeliers dripping from the ceiling, and Victorian loveseats and club chairs are set up for the audience to lounge in. Next to each one is a little table with a champagne bucket and glasses. One can order refreshments, champagne of course, and there are two imbibing breaks during the performance so you can top up your tank.
As the audience files in, the performers are running around and across the stage and through the audience in their mostly non-existent sparkly bits of costumes with open silk robes billowing behind them. It’s a very calculated move that both sets the tone and allows the audience to look their fill and get THAT out of the way. The scantily clad boys and girls are making eye contact, greeting people they know, and generally putting the audience at their ease.
When the show starts it does actually have a plot and a story. It is the well-known myth of the judgement of Paris (aka Alexander, a mortal), who is commanded by Zeus to decide which of 3 goddesses is the most beautiful, and deserves the prize of the golden apple. His choice wins him the most beautiful mortal, Helen of Troy, and thus begins the Trojan War. While Mr. McCormick’s fidelity to the general plot line of the myth is spot on, absolutely everything else is up for grabs. The structure is part theater, part circus, part divertissement.
Unfortunately, the opening is a little too reminiscent of “Cabaret” for my taste. There is literally a French/German/English “Wilkomen/Bienvenue” number by two chorus members. But luckily the rest of the show is so inventive and skews more Baroque than Belle Epoque, lessening the comparison. Zeus is turned into Zeus/Fifi (Charlotte Bydwell), a man on one side and a woman on the other side, and the host/narrator as well as principal mover of the action. A nimble performance by Charlotte Bydwell. The pas de deux between Paris (Jakob Karr) and Mercury (Todd Hanebrink) is breathtaking.
The goddess Athena’s (Marcy Richardson) bid for beauty contest winner was jaw-dropping. I don’t think there’s another classically trained, award-winning soprano who sings classical music while doing a pole dancing routine 30 feet in the air. No net. Never. Missing. A. Note. Clear, bell-like tone. Damn, girl. The same jaw dropped for the goddess Juno’s (Randall Scotting) clear, high, bell-like tone, as that BIG girl dressed in black strode on stage singing Handel. A beautiful mezzo soprano, I figured out as she started stripping, that SHE was actually HE in thigh high black dominatrix boots and a black bikini and cod-piece and actually a countertenor. A real one, not just singing in falsetto. Later in the show when he started playing the cello masterfully, that same, damn girl, made a reappearance in my head. The final, and winning (at least in the myth – I’m not judging), goddess performance by Venus (Storm Marrero) of a sultry R&B version of Bjork’s “All is Full of Love” knocked me out. She looked like a modern day Venus of Willendorf, she oozed promise and hope, and she seduced me with her incredible velvet voice.
“Paris” is an immersive experience that wouldn’t be possible without the brilliant collaboration between all the designers who create an entire world apart from everyday reality. Kudos to company set and costume designer Zane Pihlstrom, lighting designer Jeanette Yew, and sound design by Mark Van Hare.
“Paris” Conceived, Directed & Choreographed by Austin McCormick, Text by Jeff Takacs, Additional Text by Charlotte Bydwell
WITH: Charlotte Bydwell (Zeus/Fifi); Todd Hanebrink (Mercury); Lea Helle (Helen), Jakob Karr (Paris); Storm Marrero (Venus); Marcy Richardson (Athena); Randall Scotting (Juno); Nicholas Katen (Ensemble); Mark Osmundsen (Ensemble); Cara Seymour (Ensemble); Taner Van Kuren (Ensemble); Nicole von Arx (Ensemble)
Set & costume design by Zane Pihlstrom; lighting design by Jeanette Yew; sound design by Mark Van Hare; make-up design by Sarah Cimino; production stage manager, Nataliya Vasilyeva; company manager, Marisol Cabrera; wardrobe supervisor, Audrey Nauman; technical director, John Starmer; assistant stage manager, Nicole Gorss. Company XIV is sponsored by MAC Cosmetics. “Paris” Opens October 19th and runs through November 12th. It plays Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8pm at The Irondale Center, 85 South Oxford Street, Brooklyn, NY. For tickets call 866-811-4111 or visit www.companyxiv.com