The Lookingglass Theater Company’s motto, “Theater without a net,” can usually be regarded as a nice metaphor for its often edgy fare, but in the case of “Hephaestus,” the phrase should be taken literally. The circus performers in this mix of acrobatics and mythological storytelling perform high-level stunts in such an intimate environment that both the beauty and the danger feel heightened.
First performed in 2005, “Hephaestus” doesn’t have quite the same recognizable title going for it as the company’s signature work, “Lookingglass Alice.” But the show does seem a solid candidate to travel a touring path similar to that of the Lewis Carroll-inspired piece in the last year. In fact, “Hephaestus” pulls together a broad coalition of potential audiences; it’s a pretty rare show that feels successfully directed at both family crowds and hipsters.
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The various influences here are readily apparent. In its telling of an obscure Greek myth, the show invites comparison to the work of Mary Zimmerman, a Lookingglass ensemble member who often develops shows at the theater. Sure, it doesn’t plumb the same depths of metaphor, and on occasion, the story feels like an excuse to string together various acts — which, let’s face it, it partly is.
But the story — of Hephaestus (creator Tony Hernandez) being thrown from Mt. Olympus by his mother Hera (Lijana Wallenda-Hernandez), becoming god of craftsmen, entrapping Hera in a golden throne and then trading her freedom when the gods send down Aphrodite — comes across with a good deal of clarity, lending genuine emotional heft to the climactic acrobatics. Aphrodite, for example, takes the form of Ukrainian gymnast Anya Stankus, who seduces Hephaestus by doing things with hula hoops that don’t seem physically possible. The context makes it all the more sexy.
There’s a wide variety of circus influences, from Cirque du Soleil to Ringling Bros. to the Wallendas, and the cast features alumni from each. Blue Man Group also comes to mind fairly frequently — Hephaestus forges a series of silver people that give the entire endeavor the look and feel of a street performance, also contributing some great drumming. The various elements fuse effectively.
The tale itself is told from the perspective of a little girl (Abigail Droeger), which feels like a familiar, precious device at first but works, largely because of the narrative focus on the emotional impact of childhood abandonment. (Other strands of the Hephaestus myth are wisely ignored here to keep this a family-oriented endeavor.)
What sets this show apart is the thrill derived from the closeness of the physical performances. The rolling German wheel, for example, heads for the front rows with suspenseful momentum, while the ending — and it’s quite an ending — involves an impressive, genuinely nail-biting high-wire act.
After all, there really is no net.