Man and machine

Cirque Mechanics finds the balance
By JOHNETTE RODRIGUEZ  |  November 12, 2009

 Theater_CIRQUEMECH_main

‘THERE ARE WHEELS EVERYWHERE’ A scene from Birdhouse Factory.

For anyone fascinated with wheels and gears, circus stunts, or political satire, a troupe of performers called Cirque Mechanics will bring all of that and more in a show titled Birdhouse Factory to the Providence Performing Arts Center on Saturday, November 14 at 8 pm, in the final weekend of the FirstWorks Festival 2009.

The brain behind Birdhouse Factory is director Chris Lashua. From his fascination with building gear-driven machines came the idea for the factory setting; from a friend who showed him the murals Diego Rivera had made for the Ford Motor Company came the look of the era (the 1940s); from Lashua’s contacts at various circuses, including Cirque du Soleil, where he’s been performing off and on since 1992, came the 10 acrobats, gymnasts, and other artists who make up Cirque Mechanics.

Lashua loved bicycles as a kid, growing up in the mill town of Ashburnham, Massachusetts. When the BMX craze hit while he was in college (he got a degree in communica-tions and advertising from Boston University), he realized he could make money doing bike tricks.

Later Lashua discovered the large device known as a German wheel that he could perform inside of, and he “rode” it for three or four years at Cirque du Soleil before building a trolley on which it rolls, which gave him even more opportunities for inventive routines. In Birdhouse, that large wheel turns wenches that pull a cable up and down, which holds a hoop on which an aerialist hangs.

“The core of our show,” Lashua emphasized, in a phone conversation from northern New England, where the company was on tour, “is about simplifying the interconnectness between acrobat and mechanical apparatus. So many things are fake, but this is real — it’s important to me that we see what it does, that all the cranks and levers do something.

“There are wheels everywhere in Birdhouse Factory,” he continued, “because basic machines make sense to me. I happen to love clockworks, so I built all the machines from pieces that I cobbled together. Bicycles are incredible machines, and they’re fun, and you feel how the gear ratios work when you pedal uphill. This is an extension of my love for cycles.”

In addition to the giant German wheel on its trolley, Lashua designed and built a 10-foot round table with swiveling wheels that is driven by unicycles at two opposite sides (he calls it a “spin cycle”). This mechanical sculpture weaves, spins, and glides across the stage, all the while displaying an acrobat performing atop the flat surface — “showcasing the body from the most favorable angles,” in Lashua’s words.

Lashua also stressed that the show works on many levels: “A guy is looking at the gears and the path of the cable, while his wife watches the dance or the circus moves. If you’re a science teacher, there’s a lot there; if you’re a kid who likes amusement rides, there are a lot of fun things. For older people, it’s nostalgic, because it looks like a New Eng-land mill.”

This show was, he admits, “reverse-engineered,” in that the set, setting, and props came before the story. Wanting the Machine Age-looking factory to build something illogi-cal, he chose birdhouses, as a stark contrast from the natural world to the dreary industrialized scene inside the factory.

“Many of the Cirque shows are fantasy shows,” Lashua reflected, “and we didn’t want to do that. We’re in a real time with real machines and real people.”
In the first act, the workers are trudging through their day (albeit gymnastically), when a bird suddenly flies into the factory, capturing their imagination and giving them a sense of hope.

“The workers wake up and decide to do things in a new way,” Lashua explained. “It becomes a whimsical, playful factory. This story, set at the time of the Great Depression, is spot-on today. There’s a very serious feeling of ‘here we are again.’ But there’s a message of hope, that if we take control of our situation and make it work for us, cool things can happen.” 

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