A Cirque Du Soleil Performance in Hollywood Evokes Memories of the Circus of Hollywood

It couldn’t get much more Hollywood than this. The crowd ascended the gilded stairs and walked along the (literal) red carpet to take their seats in the raked balconies or along the spacious floor of the theater. Vendors walked the aisles with trays suspended from straps around their necks. The lights went down and the projector lit up and the screen filled with a black and white image. After a raucous opening, the show began 90 minutes of cinematic glory. It literally couldn’t get much more Hollywood than this, especially considering that this particular theater is actually in Hollywood, on Hollywood Boulevard at Highland and this particular stage is where the Academy Awards are handed out.

Yes. “Stage”. It was a stage from which two acrobats soared above the crowd in a Rorschach symmetry suspended by aerial straps, perfectly mirroring each other’s movements as they rose to the chandelier and descended to the floor. By now you know that in spite of the projectors and the screens, this wasn’t a movie being presented. This was Cirque Du Soleil’s IRIS, which promised “A Journey Through the World of Cinema”. After investing over $100 million in production costs including a full $40 million restoration to the famed Dolby Theatre itself, Cirque Du Soleil had left its usual Big Tops for a resident (and appropriately “theatrical”) show in an actual brick-and-mortar theater. The 90 minute program tells the story of a romantic musician named Buster and a rising young starlet named Scarlett and even features a (mostly) pre-recorded score by motion picture composer Danny Elfman. It doesn’t get much more Hollywood than that.

IRIS is an acrobatic anthology that tells a set of visual stories tied together by a loose narrative. Its characters wear working representations of artifacts of Cinema history. Costumes evoke memories of the films of cinema pioneer Georges Méliès. Actress Ekaterina Pirogovskaya wears a spinning zoetrope for a skirt, complete with dynamic animation to adorn each dizzy frame. Handheld boom microphones record real sound to bring even the back row into the clowning conversations on the stage. Two actors wear working cameras that immediately capture the live performance for the various (often mobile and lifelike) screens to interact with the performers. This interaction is often in real time, but can also be in successive loops with repetitive action and interaction within real, physical frames simulate those of a filmstrip.

And so the illusion comes full circle and merges the magics of the theater and the movies. The true and easily missed, almost meta-fictional genius of IRIS is that from the dawn of cinema, the stage and the screen have been linked in more ways than nomenclature and architecture.

The origin of cinema is, quite obviously, in the science of photography (hence the name “motion pictures”) and early animation experiments such as the aforementioned zoetrope. However, the exhibition of these movies almost immediately mimicked live, stage-centered theaters. Early arcade based private viewing devices such as the Mutoscope and Kinetoscope were among the earliest methods for publically showing movies. Phantoscopes and Vitascopes were among the earliest actual projection devices that allowed for public exposition and the first business solely devoted to showing films (Thomas Edison’s Vitascope Hall in New Orleans, Louisiana) mimicked theater rows of seats for their patrons.

This arrangement continued on to the advent of modern cinema in the form of the “Nickelodeons”. These were the first literal “Movie Theaters”, so called because these “Odeons” (from the Greek odeion, meaning “covered theater”) cost five cents for admission. At the same time, easier adaptations took place when actual vaudeville theaters adding retractable movie screens to their stages. When the curtain came down, the screens went up. When it was time for a live show, movie screens and projectors were put away.

Further advancements made longer films possible. Birth of a Nation (1915) clocked in at 190 minutes, a strong contrast to the previous decade’s 12 minute The Great Train Robbery (1903). Thus, the hard wooden seats and poor ventilation of the nickelodeons were soon outmoded and new theaters built exclusively for movies soon became as ornate and lavish as the live playhouses. Decorative balconies, modern ventilation and comfortable seats, not unlike Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre itself, were all features of the luxurious “movie palaces”.

Further blurring the lines between the terms “theatrical” and “cinematic” are the shared icons of stage and screen. Since the very beginning of narrative cinema, filmmakers have sought out sources for their adapted stories. Just as today, novels, historical events and plays along with original stories served as sources for fictional movies. The inspiration that movies have taken from plays runs a lot deeper than the obvious, however.

Pop quiz… What does “Count Dracula” look like? If you answered that he is a romantic European gentleman with slicked back black hair, pale skin, a long cape and a tuxedo, you’re not looking at the Dracula from the original Bram Stoker novel or the first movie adaptation (the unauthorized 1922 German Expressionist film Nosferatu). This imagery of Dracula became so iconic as it permeated pop culture that it has become something of a visual shorthand for Vampires in general from Dark Shadows’ Barnabas Collins to Sesame Street’s The Count and from Anne Rice’s Lestat to General Mills’ Count Chocula. Most fans will identify this image of Dracula as originating from the 1931 Universal Studios movie starring Bela Lugosi. They are only partially right.

This more elegant version of Dracula originated in the source material for the 1931 film. Stoker’s original novel came to Tod Browning’s film by way of Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston’s 1924 stage play Dracula which came to Broadway in 1927 with one Bela Lugosi in the title role. The film’s differences from the novel began with the stage play’s deviations from the script, condensing of plot points and combining of characters. Lugosi won the role in the Universal film after much lobbying for the part, not because he was a shoe-in due to his good reviews. He happened to be in Los Angeles with a touring company of Dracula at the time and agreed to a tiny amount of pay for the role which made him the model for the majority of vampires after him. Everything from the look to the voice of the pop culture Vampire, from the serious to the comical was popularized by Lugosi, but started with the play.

Years later, an affectionate musical spoof of movies like the classic Universal and RKO films (along with other sci-fi, horror and B-movies) began making a splash on stage, first in England, then in the United States and eventually on Broadway. The Rocky Horror Show was enough of a cult stage hit to attract rock stars like Elvis Presley, music producers like Lou Adler and movie executives like Gordon Stulberg to performances. It also featured costumes that even the cast of Cirque Du Soleil would find fabulous.

The movie version entitled The Rocky Horror Picture Show featured many actors from the stage show, including Richard O’Brien, Tim Curry, Meat Loaf and Little Nell, but reported disappointing box office returns and confused mainstream audiences. When the film hit the midnight movie circuit, on the other hand, it became an immediate cult classic. Audiences soon re-blurred the line between cinema and theater, dressing up as the film’s characters, participating with and responding to the movie and even acting out the scenes (often on existing or makeshift stages) in front of the screen as the film plays behind them. The box office disappointment has gone from midnight movie to cult classic to outright pop culture phenomenon.

Since then, The Rocky Horror Picture Show has been preserved as a culturally significant film by the Library of congress and is actually still in its original theatrical run 38 full years after its 1975 release, making it the longest continuously running motion picture in history. How is that possible? For almost four decades, midnight showings alone have been profitable enough for distributor 20th Century Fox to resist pulling the film from its limited release. Hopefully the after-show cleanup crews have made great profits as well. They’ve earned them. The longest running film in history and one of the most quotable and classic cult films of all time started as a stage show and still exists as something in between. That alone is worthy of a… “TOAST!”

I know what you’re thinking… coming up with another hit movie you didn’t know was based on a play would be A Shot in the Dark. And you’re right. The first sequel to 1963’s The Pink Panther came out the very next year and starred Peter Sellers as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau. The Pink Panther was created for the screen, as was its main character… a character who was not found anywhere in the 1961 Broadway play A Shot In The Dark or its own source material, the French play L’Idiote by Marcel Achard.

When it came time for Pink Panther writer/ director Blake Edwards and (no I’m not kidding) The Exorcist author William Peter Blatty to adapt L’Idiote for the big screen, something made them think of Jacques Clouseau and the story was heavily revised to feature the bumbling French policeman as its central character. The film was released as a sequel to The Pink Panther only a few months after that film and became a critical and commercial hit. If you’ve ever wondered why A Shot in the Dark is the only entry in the series to feature Peter Sellers but to have absolutely nothing to do with the Pink Panther diamond (in title or plot), the mystery is over. The credit (or blame) can be placed on the stage.

Clowns like Clouseau are all over Cirque shows with no exceptions to be found in IRIS (and not due to the, if you will, “French Connection” Cirque and Jacques share). The plot of IRIS, such that it is, does evoke a few classics film stories but is hardly a classic itself. Owing, in part, to the venue itself, a mock Oscar ceremony slows down the amazing visuals and rhythmic physical movements of the players for a silly cross-dressing farce amid similar sendups of Hollywood. Much like a Rocky Horror performer, many of the actors here (who have more actual lines than most Cirque shows have in their entire runtime) interact directly with the audience.

IRIS, which takes its name from both the part of the eye and the camera diaphragm, is at its best when it is at its most interpretive. Stories about the strive to become a star are all over Hollywood and, hence, have a place in IRIS, but when one is met with some of the best acrobats in the world, the talking becomes a bit tiresome. With the prerecorded and live streaming video accompanying each scene we are brought back stage on a film, with a wordless set up and tear down of a production evoking Dracula startles and Pink Panther guffaws.

The players become the lights, the cameras and the action of the movies, in costume and in representative movement. Acrobats, contortionists and physical comedians are all enhanced (never overcome) by a technological stage version of screen special effects. Trampoline acts on rooftops represent the film noir era as well as showing us incredible derring do. Cave shadows evoke platonic images from our imaginations (and remind us of what movies really are) while joyfully playing with force perspective.

This bygone show (the planned ten year run ended after about a year and a half in late January of 2013) was not a journey through the history of cinema, but through the world of cinema, as the tagline promised. IRIS may have missed an opportunity to literally tie together the different eras of film with actual clips or reenactments incorporated into the show, but that was never IRIS’ intent. Instead, IRIS sought to bring its audience on a surreal excursion inside film, to take them through an evolving story and to unfocus that line between stage and screen. That meaning is just beyond the iris itself, but as the final screen on the stage lit up with a black and white “Fin”, it was hard not to look at the true history of the connection and shared evolution of film and stage that IRIS hinted at so strongly (with more than a heaping helping of aerial interpretive dance). And it was hard not to want a little more of the journey.

In its way Cirque Du Soleil’s IRIS did exactly what it set out to do, holding a mirror up to Hollywood and letting its audience interpret the (often literal) cave shadows we saw there. What interpretations might each of us take away from the experience? That depends on the iris of the beholder. But then again, isn’t that what movies are all about? Different impacts, zoetropes, flickering silver screens, inventive interactions, big, boisterous scores, romance, thrills, chills, action, memories of classics, surprising origins, predictable plot points, audience participation, film scratches, flawless streaming video, award shows, fabulous costumes, love stories and the Next Reel all housed in a $100 million Odeon.

For those of you keeping score, that’s an Odeon of two billion nickels. It doesn’t get much more Hollywood than that.