“Amaluna,” the latest Cirque du Soleil spectacle to land at Boston’s Marine Industrial Park, has many of the trademarks that define the Montreal-based company’s productions. It’s got the jaw-dropping acrobats, the gasp-inducing contortionists, the skintight costumes, the chiseled bodies, and, yes, the don’t-know-when-to-stop clowns. But this production has something new: a story that has women at its core. And while it may lack some of the usual Olympic-style pageantry of your typical Cirque show, it has an intimacy that takes your breath away at times.
The production, conceived and directed by Diane Paulus (who is also artistic director of the American Repertory Theater), is loosely based on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” with a handful of other classics thrown in the mix. Here, Prospero becomes Prospera, a matriarch overseeing her daughter Miranda’s coming of age. Prospera conjures up a storm, all gossamer in the air, and a crew of young hotties washes up on the island. Miranda, in boy shorts and bustier, sets eyes on Romeo, in leatherette. Sparks fly, and the rest of the jaw-in-your-lap evening revolves around the resolution of that romance.
It’s quite a courtship, what with all those people performing feats that defy physics and anatomy. Some 70 percent of the performers are women, the opposite of most Cirque shows. A goddess (Andréanne Nadeau) hangs by her neck while swinging from a hoop. Miranda (Iuliia Mykhailova) twists her body into impossible positions while diving in and out of a large water bowl and balancing on a pole. A group of fiery Amazon women fly on the uneven bars, while the swarthy shipwrecked sailors fail to equal their prowess. Later, these swashbucklers rise to the occasion when they soar on a teeterboard, but the Amazons are not amused.
The cast members, displaying acts that have come to be known as “so Cirque,” exhibit an uncommon joy. A character called the Balance Goddess (Lili Chao) makes a sculpture out of giant palm leaf ribs, and the effect is breath-stopping. It makes you wonder how she learned this unusual art and how it translates to a resume, which would include skills like grace under pressure. Tension is thick, but her infectious smile at the end is like a physical release.
Through all of this, there are several clown interludes, featuring Miranda’s nanny and a mustachioed seafarer. They become less funny as the evening proceeds, and the scene where the nanny suddenly gives birth and turns into Octo-Clown goes on way too long.
Meanwhile, a half-human monster named Cali (after Shakespeare’s Caliban), tries to thwart the budding romance. In the person of Viktor Kee, he boasts a six-pack and a tail. He is also a mean juggler. He breaks up the couple, but Romeo (Evgeny Kurkin) is not about to take this sitting down. He is a master at the Chinese pole, and he demonstrates what it means to fall, be it in love or sliding face down and stopping short within a second of colliding with the earth.
Prospera (Julie McInnes) watches over all of this, while singing and playing the violincello with the pulsing all-female band, which plays electronic music composed by Bill & Bob. She is a brooding presence, powerful and detached and protective in a way that borders on creepy. Everyone spies on each other: Romeo watches Miranda frolic in the water. Mom and Cali lurk while the lovers flirt. This is a world where everyone focuses on a young woman coming of age, which is the heart of the production.
The creative team does its job. Scott Pask’s set is otherworldly, with a revolving stage and larger-than-life fronds that depict a magical island. Matthieu Larrivée’s lighting is ethereal, and Mérédith Caron’s clingy costumes are quintessential Cirque. Paulus has managed to sew all of these circus acts, which stand alone as curiosities, into a story that gels (at least for those familiar with “The Tempest,” which is currently running at ART, in a magic-infused production co-directed by Teller).
The final tableau, with women soaring over the audience on aerial straps, is an exultation. ART meets Las Vegas here (complete with an introductory plug for the show’s corporate sponsors). Cirque, which first performed in Boston in 1993, has gotten flashier over the years, producing paeans to Elvis and Michael Jackson and an upcoming stage version of James Cameron’s blockbuster film “Avatar.” But with its female-centric cast, “Amaluna” combines strength and grace and not a small amount of wonder and joy.