Empire gleefully declares that it doesn’t need to have a plot just because those “Cirque du Soleil assholes” have one, and you know what? They’re right.
A cheeky circus-cabaret dripping in burlesque, Empire is back for a return season under the Spiegeltent in Moore Park’s Entertainment Quarter. Hosted by occasionally naked Oscar and increasingly ribald Fanny, the entertainment starts before the curtain even rises. In my section during the pre-show someone was robbed, someone was taught how to suggestively peel a carrot, multiple people were danced with, and my cleavage was complimented. In mime.
It’s a freewheeling atmosphere of good fun, and then the curtain comes up, and everything gets impressive. There’s Miss A, a contortionist in a bubble. There’s The Gorilla Girls, who balance atop each other and form pyramids in a series of flips, jumps, and lifts.
There’s a brief interlude for Memet Bilgin Rigolo to balance a spinning top and make it dance along driftwood, and then we’re right back in the thick of it with roller skating daredevils, foot juggling (the title doesn’t do this justice – a man juggles another man with his feet, just so we’re clear), and Oscar and Fanny pop back up with some comedy burlesque.
Miss Purple, the vocalist, and Moondog, the guitarist, underscore the shenanigans – Miss Purple occasionally riding a carousel horse. Her voice soars, a mix of smokiness and power, a gorgeously rich accompaniment.
Her ability for emotional resonance adds a surprising state of grace and gravity as Carrot Man and Lime Green Lady perform their own balancing act, Carrot Man lifting and turning Lime Green Lady in a turbulent love story while Miss Purple sings Clarity (originally by Zedd).
That newfound poignance gives way for mouth-to-mouth banana juggling (we’re clear on this show being risqué, right?) before we find it again in something that left the entire raucous audience in a stunning, breath-holding silence. It’s the unlikeliest, but best, thing about Empire: Memet Bilgin Rigolo, the spinning-top-balancer, comes out again.
Cast members lay piece after piece of driftwood on the stage. Bilgin Rigolo is handed a feather. Slowly, meditatively, he rests the feather on a piece of driftwood. And rests that wood against another piece. Slowly he builds a web of branches, all placed atop each other, a feather – a feather – held aloft by nothing but branches, a maze of branches and one quiet, focused, man. It is beautiful, contemplative, somehow deeply affecting.
All at once, this silly cabaret becomes a night engaging with the impossibility of art, the body, the intricacies and delicacies of the simple things; a display of very human strength, very human fragility, and a deep sense of possibility…
And also simulated sex acts, lots of flesh, and bellowing laughter. Empire is revealing, sexy, funny, and so disarmingly thought-provoking. If you didn’t see it last year, then please take this return season as a gift from the performance gods, and get yourself to it: it really is worth it.