Low-tech, high thrills and heart-racing derring-do. When Cirque Mechanics rolled into Omaha Thursday night, it brought all that plus more onto the Orpheum Theater stage with its frenetic, free-wheeling performance of “Pedal Punk,” a show driven to its limits via a cast of highly gifted acrobats, aerialists, contortionists and trick cyclists.
It was a glorious evening of man (and woman) meets machine, one exceptional for the wit, whimsy and wonder underlying each of the cleverly choreographed routines.
Founded in 2004, Cirque Mechanics uses storytelling and innovative mechanical staging as the framework for its performances.
The spare but sturdy 22-foot-tall “Gantry Bike,” a man-powered portable circus platform, served as the central set, standing for the bike shop whence all the clever, quick-paced skits took place. The scaffolding-like structure also provided space for the artists to perform aerially from ropes, Chinese poles and suspended hoops. It’s a cleverly conceived piece of equipment, the kind that speaks to the ingenuity that the show references with its can-do spirit.
Steampunk sensibility served as the show’s overarching aesthetic, imparting an old-timey vaudevillian feel to the evening. Costumes featured corsets, fishnets, gas masks, strong-man suits and wide-striped shirts, the kind reminiscent of Victorian era bathing suits and early 20th century circuses. Mustaches and muttonchops were in vogue. The cast reminded me of the characters from Phil and Kaja Foglio’s popular “Girl Genius” adventure series, and they possessed the moxie and mad-cap, blithe boldness to match.
Each of the acts was superbly crafted in its own way, making it impossible to pinpoint one stand-out moment.
The story focused on a bike shop owner, played by acrobat/clown/juggler Jan Damm, who was tasked with repairing his eclectic clientele’s bikes. He served as the show’s comic linchpin, and whether twirling a diabolo, engaging in equilibristics or competing in a stationary bike race with an audience member, he had an affable comic timing that made him the evening’s star.
Wheels, whether on impossibly small tricycles, penny-farthing high-wheel bicycles or completely unencumbered by frames and gears, dominated the show, and the performers commanded every bit of makeshift machinery with deceptive ease.
One used a BMX bike to enact breathtakingly precise stunts; another danced an evocative tango with bare bike rims. Still another rode a unicycle while balancing his partner — on his head. No matter the act, the ability to control wheels with such pinpoint precision was highly impressive and elicited gasps and cheers throughout the almost two-hour performance.
When wheels weren’t involved, aerial stunts, contortion and humor drove the production. A contortionist twisted his body in cringe-worthy positions on a rotating platform; an acrobat did a sinuous rope routine; several performers performed a percussive trampoline act.
No matter the act, Cirque Mechanics’ “Pedal Punk” delivered a fast-paced evening of superbly skillful performances. It was a successful marriage of human and mechanical elements, ones that united and perfectly aligned to produce unforgettably wonderful entertainment.