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From Cirque To Puck -- And Back! 

Karl Baumann's high-flying career

Beginning with Quidam in 2002, Charlotte has cultivated an unquenchable appetite for Cirque du Soleil's endless cavalcade of traveling spectacles. Varekai provided an encore mix of phenomenal acrobatics, fantastical costuming, winsome clowning and captivating music last fall outside Lowe's Speedway under Cirque's signature blue-and-yellow chapiteau.

Now a new style of Cirque show comes downtown for two nights to Bobcats Arena, where seven times as many people can witness the wonder at a clap.

"The stage is 130 feet long and 20 feet wide -- it divides the arena in two," says Karl Baumann, who stars in Cirque's new Delirium. "We have these four screens that are like the size of IMAX screens. Also, what we have is a combination of performers on the stage plus video images on the screen. It's like a see-through scrim, and sometimes we interact with the images. It's quite something."

Charlotte audiences have had a rare opportunity to watch both Cirque and Baumann evolve. After seeing Baumann as the principal character in Quidam, Charlotte Rep founder Steve Umberger plucked the pint-sized actor off the Cirque circuit to be his Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Baumann didn't chew scenery in his Shakespeare debut at Theatre Charlotte in 2003. No, the Austria native occasionally climbed the scenery and swung from it. Each entrance Puck made as Oberon's minion was a fresh acrobatic surprise.

Never mind how Baumann mangled the Bard's couplets. What other Puck could speak at all standing on one hand -- horizontally?

By September of 2003, Baumann was reprising his Robin Goodfellow antics for Umberger at the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival in High Point, with more baroque gymnastics, acrobatics and choreographed shtick plus improved Puck elocution.

In his current Delirium tour, Baumann spends most of his stage time suspended in air as Bill, a protagonist he likens to Saint-Exupery's Little Prince. Bill's from a planet where unemotional, mechanical regimentation rules -- until he discovers that he can break away on a typically colossal Cirque balloon. The first singer soloist onstage -- singing the first meaningful lyrics ever in Cirquedom -- warns Bill that he's flying too high.

"Bill is torn between the two sides," Baumann explains. "Should he stay where everything is secure and good, and where he gets his paycheck every week? Or maybe there's something more creative and interesting to do in his life. Finally, the dream is winning, and he takes off and goes away. And the next singer comes on, and she introduces him to feelings -- something he got totally out of touch with."

Hatching their new arena breed, Cirque has taken their infectious music from the background to centerstage. The altered glitz is scaled more like rock shows -- with technical effects and lighting design to match. Quite a destination for someone who came to America to study dance in New York at the famed Juilliard School. And quite a hike in decibels for a man who began his professional career in the mime-inflected Momix dance troupe.

Baumann feels that the time he spent on smaller stages as Puck is now paying off big-time at big arenas.

"All the vocabulary I've developed with movement, and then with the acting, now I can combine it really well," Baumann observes. "We have video cameras that film us. So I have to deal with two things. One is the closeness of the camera in my face, but at the same time, the people far away have to see your movement. So I'm kind of going back and forth with that."

As Baumann shuttles from big to small onstage, he shuttles from town to town like royalty. The people who work around Cirque's troubadours have built and struck scaffolding for the likes of Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand, the Backstreet Boys and the Stones.

"We've got those touring buses that are really comfortable," Baumann purrs. "They become like a second home to us. It's like a touring rock band, where Cirque du Soleil is the star, you know? The cook, for instance, he told me he, was cooking for Prince!"

With all the physical action onstage, Baumann can't go hog wild on the chow. He admits eschewing steak for fish before appearing onstage these days.

So does Charlotte's most memorable Puck ever have thoughts of returning to the Bard?

"For now, I'm back there for good," Baumann answers. "But I really like the small theater, too, because of the direct contact with the audience. And I hope that, eventually, I could find a balance, where I could really do a Cirque show at the same time and, during my break, do theater."

Far-fetched, but not impossible. Baumann tells me that somebody named Umberger has a backstage pass for opening night this Friday.

REVIEWS

From the first churnings of the Charlotte Symphony strings -- and the bumptious entrance of the trombones -- you knew it. Richard Danielpour's Margaret Garner is hell-bent on sounding like an opera not some modal, atonal cousin. If you've ever found Toni Morrison's prose turgid, cryptic or opaquely lyrical, you rejoiced further to find that her libretto wasn't merely a condensation of Beloved.

No, it's a freshly imagined distillate of Garner's tragedy -- the true-life story that Beloved was based upon -- earthy, elemental, spare in its lyricism and resolutely melodramatic. It's as unashamedly operatic as Danielpour's score.

There will be earthier interpretations of the title role as Garner is performed down the years, performances that reach the runaway slave's dignity and nobility through her degradation and ignorance rather than skirting daintily around them. Meanwhile, the air-brushed version we get from mezzo diva Denyce Graves will do quite handsomely. It was truly thrilling to have Graves' polish and stature at Belk Theater with Opera Carolina so early in this work's almost certain march into standard repertory.

Graves was most compelling in the scenes after Margaret is elevated from her slave hovel to a more decorous position at Maplewood Plantation in master Edward Gaines' home. Dramatic tension builds nicely from a key moment at a soiree when the maidservant speaks out of turn. She's beaten and raped for her presumption.

At strategic moments, Danielpour's music cued us with premonitions that things were about to turn bad. He writes beautifully for the voice, spreads melodies liberally among his characters and seems most enamored with the lower reaches of Graves' tessitura, a truly honeyed zone.

Morrison is even more amazing in her operatic debut, crafting a libretto that rises instantly to the pinnacle of all that have ever been written in English -- or pretty damn close. It's not just that she gives us nuanced portraits of both blacks and whites, she also zeroes in on the absurdity and the quotidian horror of slavery as a way of life.

Perhaps that's why the courtroom scene is so memorable. Margaret isn't standing on trial for murder after she butchers her children. No, that would be an admission from Edward -- and the judges -- that the Garner children were human. Instead, she is arraigned for unlawful destruction of property and sentenced to die.

Maybe the most telling touch, proving that Morrison has something of the stage animal in her, is giving Margaret two slain babes, doubling the number in Morrison's novel and Garner's history. Slaughtering one, in the heat of moment, could be termed an impulse. Slaughtering one after another onstage, with a Psycho frenzy of orchestration behind you, now that's a statement: My kids will never be slaves again!

We've seen more than a couple of modern operas pass through Belk Theater. I predict this one will return.

The clashing qualities inherent in King Lear make it one of the mightiest works ever penned for the stage -- and one of the most impossible to do justice to. Begin with the strength and senility of the king. Proceed to breathtaking panorama of scenes and effects.

Amid Lear's mortification and enlightenment, it seems like at least half a dozen other nobles are learning some important life lessons that need sufficient pointing. As is usual when companies have the hubris to tackle Lear, the only A grade that Charlotte Classics Theatre gets for their current production is for Audacity.

Some of director Tony Wright's casting concepts were truly intriguing. Certainly, he was spreading the heavy lifting beyond Lear when he cast Carrie Anne Hunt as both Cordelia and Lear's Fool. The other major doubling asked two actors to timeshare good and evil roles: Hank West as the King of France and Oswald, Christian Love as Edgar and the Duke of Burgundy.

And Wright's abridgment of the script to 150 minutes, including intermission, is a deft surgery. But the first scene, where the doddering monarch rashly divides his kingdom, is wretchedly acted by both David G. Holland as Lear and Brian Willard as his adversary, the Earl of Kent. The production finally hits its stride after the storm, performed without a flicker of lightning or a drop of water. Holland's purification as Lear is truly moving, and Hunt's pardoning of him as Cordelia is exquisite.

Yes, adorable is an excellent quality in Cordelia, but it's too milky for Lear's Fool.

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