Now comes the world premiere of "Hephaestus: A Greek Mythology Tale," which may just be its most seamless, ingenious and altogether stunning mix of circus arts, music and theatrical storytelling to date. Co-written and co-directed by Tony Hernandez (who also plays the title role) and Heidi Stillman, the show easily could sell tickets on the basis of just the breathtaking series of acts performed by the local and international circus artists who comprise the cast. And not even under the most intimate big top do you ever find yourself just inches from an acrobat as she swings over your head, or so close to a tightrope walker that you can see the curve of her arched foot, or so near a contortionist that you can watch the tendons in her steely if wraithlike arms.
But ultimately what makes this 70-minute show so magical, so powerful and so monumental in its emotional impact is the brilliant way in which a series of individual acts have been integrated into the whole. "Hephaestus" is a story of primal emotions and mythic proportions. And just as each particular specialty act on view gradually builds in its level of risk, danger and difficulty, the creators of this show have seen to it that the overall accrual of these acts -- each meticulously woven into the plot -- builds to a climax that leaves you with sweating palms, white knuckles, palpitations of the heart and an all-around sense of awe.
The show is framed as a bedtime story narrated by a tiny child frightened by her parents' arguments. (She is played by the beguiling, sweet-voiced Lia Lankford, a 9-year-old Chicago Lab School student.) Hers is the only voice we hear throughout the piece as she recounts the Greek myth of Hephaestus (Hernandez, on tightrope and trapeze).
The deformed, unwanted child of Zeus and Hera (the latter played by Lijana Wallenda-Hernandez, Tony's real-life wife, and a seventh-generation member of the world-renowned Wallenda circus family), Hephaestus is tossed off Mt. Olympus by his mother. And his descent and watery landing are beautifully evoked with the help of acrobatic sea nymphs who unspool on silk panels.
Skills of an artist
Hephaestus' legs may be crippled, but he has the hands and imagination of an artist. And from his giant forge (conjured with light and the pounding sound of Kodo drums and other percussion), he shapes his own crutches and leg braces as well as remarkably lifelike silver sculptures (embodied by Lauren Hirte, Rick Kubes, Brent Roman, Nikolas Wallenda and Rani Waterman, who work on everything from half-stilts and bungee cords to the trapeze) and gorgeous jewelry (Dallas Zoppe, a human bangle who can spin 20 iridescent hoops around her tiny body until they become a perfect metallic blur).
Hephaestus' artistry does not go unnoticed by his haughty mother, who sends her various messengers to Earth: Iris (Erendira Wallenda, the high-flying slack-rope artist who swings from the rafters); Ares, god of war (Almas Meirmanov, a small, airborne gymnast who surely is made of steel), and Aphrodite (the equally steely contortionist Olga Pikhienko). Hera wants her son to build her a throne, and so he does. And in the show's terrifying climactic act, she rides that throne as part of a human pyramid that makes its slow passage across a tightrope. It's an act of the most extreme physical and mental concentration (and one that would be just as nail-bitingly tense -- and far more enjoyable -- were the performers wearing safety wires).