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Glenda Frank

''La Vie''

''LA VIE '' created by The Seven Fingers.
Presented at the Spiegeltent, Pier 17, Fulton Fish Market, South Street Seaport, NYC
July 2 – Sept. 30, 2007. Sun., 9:30; Mon. 7:30, 9:30 PM; Wed., 9:30 PM; Thurs. – Fri. 9:30, 11:30 PM; Sat. 11:30 PM.
Tickets: $35-55 at www.spiegelworld.com or 212-279-4200.

by Glenda Frank

There is a new breed of circuses in town, designed to appeal to the imagination and for adults (only). Not that it doesn't have its share of aerial daring, breath-taking gymnastics, clowning around, and center-ring bravado, but it assumes most of us, although we are bored with the kid stuff, still harbor an appetite for the big top. A little X-rating and banter go a long way. This year a new "Absinthe" (covered in another review) has been joined by "La Vie," The Seven Fingers premiere, at the Spiegeltent on Pier 17 at South Street Seaport.

Arrive early so you have time to take in the long panorama of the East River, the spectacular bridges, the leisurely ships and the Brooklyn shore while you enjoy drinks, and bring your sense of humor and awe. The wait on line, even with tickets, is long, but your first view of the classy beveled glass, velvet and teak interior of the Spiegeltent alone is worth the wait.

The Master of Ceremonies, who introduces himself as the Coroner (aka The Prince of Liars), shares a trade secret right up front. The Seven Fingers wanted to title the show "Le Mort" (Death), but they figured the name might not sell tickets. The core premise is that "we're all on a flight to hell that never quite gets there," performers and audience alike. The Coroner (Sebastien Soldevila) and his prim stewardess/secretary (Shana Carroll) – who performs a sexy high wire although you wouldn't guess it from her day garb – have an oversized book with all our dossiers (flight records) and Purgatory case numbers. They begin a selective audience roll call – and it's fun to conjecture who the audience plants are and whose reactions are real. When they get to Patrick Léonard's name, they keep paging because no one answers – until he falls from the ceiling. And then, as all the performers gathered on stage for a bizarre ritual involving paper cups, the show begins.

The dark concept permits a variety of mismatched types, story lines, and routines as well as some interesting lighting and costume changes. Mimi (Emilie Bonnavand), an alluring brunette who committed suicide by hanging, and Faon Shane, who prefers to contort in heavy chains, perform their solo trapeze routines in a quick, dangerous choreography and then join talent in some spectacular duets that are a second-act surprise. It's easy to get distracted by the individual acts and lose the thread of the whole so it's best just to sit back, take it all in as though it were a dream, and not wonder why Mimi is wandering in and out of scenes or what the Coroner's secret talent is. He's going to reveal it – you will be impressed and surprised.

There are echoes of satire when the air crash theme conflates with corporate malfeasance in Case 325, an airline CEO (Samuel Tetreault) who is responsible for the death of over 100 passengers. He enters in a wheelchair and performs a variety of upper-body acrobatics. When the MC has had enough of him, he tips him in his wheelchair over the side of the stage.

"La Vie" has an amply supply of good, disjunctive narratives. Storylines and fleeting allusions meld into each other without apparent reason. Isabelle Chassé, a gamine who creates aerial magic out of tied bed sheets in an attempted escape from the asylum ploy, plays a lunatic who must be controlled by a host of attendants. Her struggle with a straight jacket creates a dozen cat's cradles from the long-armed restriction. It's a dance of arms and a wonder of contortion. Even in her madness, identifying with her, as the gang holds her down on the gurney and ropes her in. She's a spark of energy, fighting for her freedom.

If the show has a star, it's Patrick, the clown, a skinny, down-on-his-luck little tramp who's always game to try it one more time. When the Coroner stands him on his head and twists him like a wine opener, I thought his neck would snap. One of the funniest and most sympathetic bits is his attempt to board the airline. He keeps beeping at the gate and soon finds himself stripped – and still beeping. The metal object was not in his clothes.

The comic relief, like the acrobatics, comes in many forms, broad and subtle. Some of the routines are framed by a boxing motif. In an ancient but still effective and funny exercise, one hand of the performer struggles to grab a wine bottle (which is on the other hand) and is tugged in all directions, falling over herself as the wine bottle wins control. There are brief sexy dances that should be longer. There is a bit with shaping clay that works at first but drags on three times too long. Most of the Human Sound Box's (DJ Pocket) feats are fresh and unusual, but a little goes a long way. There's a nice bit with a yukele.

The show answers another question circus fans might be wondering: Is there life beyond Cirque du Soleil? The Montréal-based Les 7 Doigts de la Main -- composed of mostly ex-Cirque performers living in a former nunnery – share a combined 50 years of Cirque expertise. They are contenders and prize-winners, the top of the food chain, working in a dangerously intimate space without a net, offering us a wide range of creative daring.

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