Hephaestus: A Greek Mythology Circus Tale

Lookingglass Theatre Company

The Greek gods led pretty seamy lives. So it’s odd to have a nine-year-old girl lisping the story of Hephaestus, god of fire, in Tony Hernandez and Heidi Stillman’s circus-oriented Lookingglass show. At least narrator Lia Lankford brings some emotion to the tale. Hephaestus, generally depicted as ugly and lame, was a sorry guy who got a raw deal all the way round: a lot of women done him wrong, starting with his mother, Hera. Finding her infant hideous and deformed, she threw him off Mount Olympus into the sea. When the little girl tells this early part of the story, sitting on her bed with her parents quarreling in the background, she sings to her stuffed bunny, calling it “poor little baby” and making it tumble through the air to the refrain “falling, flying.”

The opening made me think that Hephaestus: A Greek Mythology Circus Tale would have an emotional through line focused on the character’s vulnerability. But it’s only a skeletal frame for the circus acts, which range from tightrope walking to juggling to spectacular work on the aerial silks, rings, and trapezes. True, Hephaestus was an artist of sorts who triumphed through his creativity, so there’s some connection with theater. And his metalworking skills are a good excuse for plenty of shiny costumes. The story itself, a Greek myth with many variants, gives Hernandez and Stillman lots of options for what tale to tell, what to incorporate and what to exclude. They include Hephaestus getting revenge on his mother by making a magic throne to entrap her, and her method of escape from it: she bribes her son by offering him Aphrodite in marriage. But the part where Aphrodite does Hephaestus wrong, betraying him with Ares, isn’t in the show. Greek mythology’s most famous mismatched couple, a crippled blacksmith and the goddess of love, are simply not part of the equation, even though this complexity might have fleshed out his character.

Maybe it’s natural that Lookingglass has cleaned up the myth–this is supposed to be a family-friendly production. But in other ways Hephaestus panders to the adult audience: the costumes are revealing and all the airborne gyrating and splits look like burlesque. Beautiful women in skimpy costumes are a staple of the circus, if somewhat quaint in our porn-permeated times. And these women are not only beautiful, they’re magnificent athletes. Still, when contortionist Olga Pikhienko as Aphrodite does a sort of mating dance for Hephaestus, her sinuous body taking on all kinds of positions not usually found in nature while her husband-to-be (and the audience) sits and ogles her, it’s a highly sexualized scenario. The narrator’s line after this scene got the evening’s only laugh: in her little piping voice the girl says, “Hephaestus was in love!”

There were no other moments of humor, and no affecting elements after the first scene. Yet having watched Lookingglass Alice by the same company a year ago, I know it’s possible to embed acrobatic feats in a story with believable characters who elicit a range of emotions. Instead this is a highly derivative, commercial piece–basically Cirque du Soleil meets Blue Man Group, with lots of drumming by what appear to be space-alien miners. Hernandez says in his director’s note that he was aiming to “make the circus/theatre gap closer to 50/50,” but the proportion here is more like 98/2.

The acrobatic feats are well done, without a net, by members of the Wallenda and Vasquez families, by former Cirque du Soleil and Ringling Bros. performers, and by Lookingglass associate Hernandez as Hephaestus. But only one performer–Almas Meirmanov as Ares–held my interest for more than a minute or two. Effortlessly flipping through several positions in a split second, he’s as easy and graceful as a fish in water. Otherwise the circus acts were a little tedious, like fireworks displays that go on too long. Initially impressive, they develop only by upping the ante, the performers muscling through yet another, presumably more difficult move. And that’s not enough of a journey or a destination.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.