Arts·Preview

Empire has acrobats, music, comedy — but you're the star

Under a circus big top, we're all part of the show. Go inside Empire's Spiegeltent of wonders. The bawdy acrobatic cabaret, presented by Australia's Spiegelworld, opens in Toronto this week as part of its ongoing Canadian tour.

Under a circus big top, we're all part of the show. Go inside Empire's Spiegeltent of wonders.

Empire's spiegeltent venue seats 700. (Pat Beaudry)

There's a tent as big as a Pizza Hut on Toronto's harbourfront — a transient, mirrored palace that rolled into town after appearing in Ottawa, Quebec City and Montreal earlier this summer. What's happening under its velvet canopy? The short answer is Empire, a bawdy acrobatic cabaret from Australian company Spiegelworld. There are contortionists, there are musical numbers, there are gross-out comedy routines that are, to use a somewhat spoiler-ish word, "bananas." Every feat is performed on a centre stage —  just three metres in diameter, and significantly closer than three metres from the front row.

Empire's contorting girl in a bubble, Lucia Cabrines. (Pat Beaudry)

And if you're having trouble imagining how this all comes together as one comprehensible show, you're not alone. When Empire's star vocalist, Tessa Alves, first heard about the concept, she was stumped. At the time, the Brampton, Ont. actress was backpacking through India, recharging after a long run in Broadway's Rock of Ages. A friend e-mailed her a job offer.

"They had said, 'How about doing this circus show? It's in a travelling tent,'" she recalls. "I'm like 'What is this?'" she laughs. "I've never been in a circus before. A travelling tent? I don't understand."

Tessa Alves (right) sings in Empire. (Free Style Photography)

That changed when Alves had the chance to see one of Spiegelworld's productions during the casting process. Once inside the tent, it all clicked. She described it as a shocking "burlesque circus show."

The performance she caught was a production of Absinthe in Brisbane, Australia, one of multiple Spiegelworld shows currently happening worldwide. Another version of Absinthe has been headlining at Caesar's Palace since 2011. (Maybe you saw that video of Channing Tatum jumping on stage there in June?)

Burlesque acrobats The Gorilla Girls perform in Empire. (Peter Jennings)

As for Empire, which first debuted in a Broadway vacant lot in 2012, its aesthetic is inspired by the street performers and icons of New York City, by way of Moulin Rouge. (And incidentally, a couple of Baz Luhrmann's old collaborators contributed to the production: choreographer Cha Cha O'Connell and designer Angus Strathie.)

The man behind the brand has his own way of describing it all. Ross Mollison, the producer behind the Spiegelworld shows, doesn't call Empire a circus per se — though he's had a life-long passion for the form, even mounting a 2000 production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats under a big top. "We like to say our show is our own style of show," he says.

Empire's Yasu Yoshikawa performs in the Cyr Wheel. (free style photography)

And really, the tent — not the play — is the thing. It's a spiegeltent, to be precise. Literally a "mirror tent" if you translate it in Dutch, these travelling venues were popular around the turn of the last century, hosting circuses and dance halls.

"Our entire environment is a set. There's this great trend towards immersive entertainment," says Mollison. "To me the spiegeltent is immersive entertainment."

Indeed, the show begins as soon as you enter – even if the first act has yet to take the stage. Performers mingle with the crowd, for one. But you'll be rubbernecking because of the environment alone. Empire's spiegeltent is fitted with warm wooden walls, bevelled mirrors, stained glass windows. It's also cozily packed with folding chairs, all circling the performers. If you're not dragged on stage — a real threat if you're a middle-aged dude with front-row seats  — you're still a part of the show.

Inside Empire's spiegeltent. (SNAPePHOTO)

"In our space it's genuine one-room theatre," Mollison explains. "The audience is absolutely implicit to the entertainment and the experience. No audience, no real entertainment. And half the time it's the audience that you're watching enjoy the entertainment as much as you're watching the artists."

That's who Mollison is watching as he drops in on Spiegelworld shows from stop to stop — including this Canadian tour of Empire. It's the same for Alves, whose role as Empire's singing ringmaster Miss Purple gives her the best seat in the place.

"I love looking out and watching people react and be shocked," she says. "Be loose and do something you've never done before. It's that experience. It's not like going to the theatre."

Empire. Directed by Terence O'Connell. Presented by Spiegelworld. To October 18. Tue & Wed; Fri & Sat 8pm; Thurs – Sat 10 pm; Sunday 7pm. $45-$129. Under the Spiegeltent on Toronto's Harbourfront, 318 Queens Quay W. at Rees Street, Toronto. Also Vancouver starting Feb 4. www.spiegelworld.ca

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