By Christopher Caggiano
The latest show from circus troupe The 7 Fingers is both intimate and gasp-inducing.
Passengers, performed by The 7 Fingers. Directed and choreographed by Shana Carroll. Music, lyrics, sound design, and arrangements by Colin Gagné. Presented by ArtsEmerson at Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, 219 Tremont Street, Boston, MA, through October 13.
This week, Boston theatergoers had the opportunity to witness two separate genre-busting performances, each as transporting as the other. One was David Byrne’s exhilarating American Utopia, which played through September 28 at the Emerson Colonial Theater prior to Broadway. Byrne’s show is an invigorating mix of rock concert, personal monologue, dance piece, and drum line. (Arts Fuse review.)
Passengers, right around the corner from the Colonial, at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, is an American premiere from the contemporary circus troupe Le Sept Doigts de la Main, or The 7 Fingers. Like American Utopia, this show presents a mélange of styles — part circus, part modern dance piece, part jazz concert, part experimental theater production. But all of it is a thrill to behold.
The 7 Fingers troupe is a Boston favorite, having been featured in seven out of ArtsEmerson’s 10 seasons thus far. And it’s easy to understand why. The troupe emerged in 2002 as a sort of intimate alternative to Cirque du Soleil. As Cirque has grown increasingly flashy and epic, The 7 Fingers have steadfastly remained human in scale, though invigorating in execution.
The 7 Fingers first came to my attention in 2011 with their muscular and bracing Off-Broadway offering Traces, a grungy seven-person piece whose dazzling feats of acrobatic skill more than made up for the hackneyed post-apocalyptic framing device. Their more recent offering Reversible, which played Boston in 2017, was somewhat less impressive — short on feats and long on pretense.
With Passengers, The 7 Fingers returns to form with a vengeance. The acrobatic acts here are every bit as arresting as those in Traces, but they come with a framing device that strikes a far more heartfelt note. The concept for Passengers is simple: eight people, as they travel on a train, contemplate the connections in their lives. The physical feats arise as each performer drifts off into a personal reverie. The acrobatics are more than just visually impressive: they also represent touching moments of human affinity.
A show from The 7 Fingers usually involves a tasteful mix of movement, music, design, and artful athletics. Passengers is no exception. The direction and choreography are by Shana Carroll, co-artistic director of The 7 Fingers. She has worked with her design team to create a self-contained world filled with imagination and possibility, one that is by turns charming and poignant, exciting and ruminative.
The acrobatic acts themselves are standard fare for a contemporary circus act: juggling, hula hoops, silks, tightrope, and assorted tumbles, contortions, etc. But again, the distinction of this troupe lies in its invigorating execution and handsome mise en scène. In addition, throughout the production, the performers demonstrate their versatility by adopting multiple roles: juggler and trapeze artist, acrobat and singer, actor and roustabout.
One of Passengers‘ highlights features a combination of trapeze and ground acrobatics called “hand to trap,” which involved some gasp-inducing throws and catches from performers Sereno Aguilar Izzo and Sabine van Rensburg. Another stunner is a trapeze-like act called “the Russian cradle” that doesn’t use a trapeze, just hand-to-hand aerial work from the nimble Louis Joyal and the strapping Samuel Renaud. But even the most straightforward of routines — juggling, tightrope walking, hula hoop spinning — benefits from the always stylish 7 Fingers treatment.
Passengers’ drawbacks come with the territory and are highly forgivable, including some occasional flubs during the juggling act or the hula hoop performance. If anything, the little glitches remind the audience of the immediacy, risk, and verisimilitude of the experience.
One minor annoyance: the presence of what seemed to be professional clappers, or perhaps friends of the show, who were strategically placed in the auditorium to incite mid-performance applause. Given the essential nature of The 7 Fingers — to create an intimate, self-contained world — such manipulative efforts would seem to be counterproductive.
Christopher Caggiano is a writer and teacher based in Boston. He serves as Associate Professor of Theater at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee. His writing has appeared in American Theatre and Dramatics magazines, and on TheaterMania.com and ZEALnyc.com.