On March 4, the Vilar Performing Arts Center welcomed the traveling circus-theater company Cirque Mechanics back to its stage.
The idea of fitting a circus into such an intimate performance space initially seems counterintuitive, but stages like the Vilar’s are precisely what Cirque Mechanics was designed for. By combining acrobatic artistry with strategically designed sets and apparatus, the company enables big stunts to be performed in smaller spaces.
Cirque Mechanics was born the same way any great engineering feat comes to be: founder and creator Chris Lashua needed to solve a problem. Lashua invented the “German Wheel” for Cirque du Soleil, a circular contraption that looks like a wrapped ladder, which allows the acrobat inside of it to use the rolling motion to propel a variety of gymnastic-like stunts.
Lashua’s wife and Cirque Mechanics co-founder Aida Lashua said that while the act was popular, he felt limited in the opportunities that he had to perform it due to spacing issues.
“When he went off on his own, he realized that a lot of places didn’t have enough space for him to do all the rotations that he wanted to do,” Aida Lashua said. “So he started thinking what can I do, what can I build, that would help me to be able to perform in pretty much any space, no matter how big or small it is.”
Chris Lashua designed a new machine to hold the wheel that allowed him to do as many rotations as he wanted, and the process sparked an idea that would lead to the creation of Cirque Mechanics.
“That started him thinking: why not build all sorts of machines that interact with each other and the performer, where the performer is essentially the power behind the machine,” Aida Lashua said.
That idea has now led to nearly two decades of shows that blend engineering, acrobatic artistry and theater and have been performed on dozens of stages around the world.
“Birdhouse Factory” was Cirque Mechanics’ very first production. The show is centered on a group of factory workers under the harsh rule of a bitter boss, who spends each day making widgets that serve no clear purpose. One day, a bird gets into the factory, and inspires the workers to renounce their dull and monotonous routines and instead bring joy to each other and the world by building birdhouses.
Originally staged in 2004, Aida Lashua said that the company had planned a 15th anniversary revival tour that began in 2019, but it was canceled before completion due to the pandemic. The tour was then rescheduled for a 2021-2022 season, and concluded this week on March 8 in Durango, CO.
“It turned out, serendipitously, to be the perfect show for people to go see through the pandemic, and now post-pandemic,” Aida Lashua said. “It’s about the challenges of the factory worker during the depression era, so people were faced with a lot of hardship and had to make due. This sweet bird comes into the factory and inspires all of these workers to shift their thinking and their perspective. They come together to make something new and beautiful, and I think that a lot of us had to do that during the pandemic.”
The Vilar stage was artfully transformed into a depression-era factory, with a Ford-style assembly line, large gears and metal scaffolding that together form a jungle gym out of an industrial space. Performers were costumed in overalls, Dickies and flat caps, with the one boss in a suit, top hat and cane. One woman was clearly portraying Rosie the Riveter, and flashing the signature “We can do it!” muscle flex from the famous World War II poster.
Aida Lashua said that both the set and costume design of the show were inspired by Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals of the 1930s.
The blend between man and machine that is so prevalent in factory settings — and can be reflected in our modern-day relationships to computers — takes physical form in the acts that Cirque Mechanics specialize in. Workers power a turntable by riding unicycles, while a contortionist performs on top. A man runs inside of a German Wheel, which acts as a gear propelling an attached aerial hoop artist into the sky. By combining an act with a mechanical apparatus, it elevates the capacity of a show designed for smaller performance spaces, while also serving as a metaphor for the lived experience of industrial workers during this period of history.
The narrative of the show is led by two mime-like actors, the boss and one of the workers, who convey a great deal of both emotion and comedy through their wordless acts. The boss’ acrobats are money-related and often serve as poignant metaphors in and of themselves — such as the balancing of champagne glasses on a knife. In contrast, the worker brings physical, slapstick comedy and joy to the stage, easily winning the hearts of the audience and getting huge laughs from all of the children in the theater.
There is a feeling of redemption when the kind and joyful worker overtakes the cruel and hostile boss, and though the workers in the second half are less productive than in the first, they meet the day with a sense of independence and, most importantly, fun . Acts towards the end of the show involve dance, hula hoops, and a round of trampoline stunts, with physical comedy thrown in throughout.
“There’s so much more to our company than the circus acrobatics – which are fantastic, that’s the thrill of the circus – but on top of that there are all these other layers,” Aida Lashua said. “There’s the artfulness of it, there’s music, there’s the beauty of it and the story. Our hope is that you walk away inspired and forget a little bit about what’s going on around this world for a couple of hours.”
Cirque Mechanics have concluded their “Birdhouse Factory” revival tour, but plan to be back at the Vilar with additional show offerings in the future.
“We’re excited to go back to the Vilar center because it’s very intimate, and that’s what we like,” Aida Lashua said. “We’re only 10-12 people on stage and we like to be close to the audience, we like to bring people in, and at the Vilar they are able to see the performer’s facial expressions and feel like they’re with us experiencing what happens.”
For more information about Cirque Mechanics, visit CirqueMechanics.com.