Beautiful, bawdy – and breath-taking
By Kim Edwards
Empire has returned to Melbourne after its sell-out season last year, and it is a sumptuous spectacle to behold. In the ever-delightful space of the Spiegeltent now perched atop Crown Casino, vaudeville has run away to the circus as contortionists, acrobats, balancing acts, strip-tease artists, musicians and comedians converge for our entertainment.
I loved the casual, classy chaos as the performers mingled merrily with the audience before the show, willingly stepping in as ushers, posing for photos, striking up conversations, or attempting silly or sexy pseudo-seductions. The effort to establish memorable and iconic characters meant our favourites were greeted like old friends when reappearing on stage for their respective acts, and made the reveal of their actual talents all the more jaw-dropping.
The show plays out on a tiny stage in the round, and there is a real sense of risk in this immediacy and intimacy when dangerous routines are being performed just inches away from or above the audience. Crowd-charmer Yasu Yoshikawa countered his cute antics and pigtails with terrifying spinning and springing in and over giant hoops, while Vlad Ivashkin and Aiusha Khadzh Khamed performed an acrobatic balancing act of impressive strength and skill.
The opening act with contortionist and aeralist Lucia Carbines suspended in a perspex bubble was utterly beautiful, and Denis Petaov and Mariia Beseimbetova actually made me forget to breathe with their ferociously fast spinning routine. I was not the only one to gasp aloud in horror at the lifts and speeds they achieved, but I also delighted in the beautiful choreography that held the piece together and the couple’s intense self-involvement: there was something wonderfully private and poignant in their lack of audience acknowledgement.
The show’s finale was an obvious highlight – I am still in awe. Memet Bilgin Rigolo builds and balances an amazing impromptu skeleton of branches with slow and hypnotic grace and grandeur, and the tension mounts with each addition to his structure. But it is the final moment which reminded us so powerfully of the wildly improbable feat just performed – simply unforgettable theatre.
Victoria Matlock and John Shannon provided a rich and dramatic musical backdrop to the acts, though some sound issues unfortunately affected her diction and his solos. Jonathan Taylor and Anne Goldmann provided the comic relief as husband-and-wife-comperes, and while their hen-night style humour and audience humiliation was a bit too crass for my taste, the crowd loved them, and their quick-change talents and banana routine were genuinely clever and skillful.
There’s a joke about the show not needing a story like Cirque Du Soleil, and it’s true, but if I have a criticism, it would be the New York ‘theme’ is superficial at best and it would have been nice to have something more evocative cementing the show together. Meanwhile, my special mention must go to the slick and dextrous crew, and the happy helpful FOH stuff.
Empire is both highly memorable and wondrously diverting, and there is little surprise it is enjoying a return season now with extra shows: I was entranced.
EMPIRE by Spiegelworld
From March 11 to April 20 2014
Under the spiegeltent on the Rooftop at Crown, access via Level 3, Whiteman Street, Southbank.
Performance Schedule: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday 7:30pm; Friday & Saturday 7:30pm & 9:30pm; Sunday 7:00pm
Tickets: Tue/Wed/Thu: $59.00 – $129.00, Fri/Sat/Sun: $69.00 – $149.00