The thrill and exhaustion of watching Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Volta’

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Joey Arrigo, as the character Waz, performs on a lighting fixture in

Joey Arrigo, as the character Waz, performs on a lighting fixture in "Volta." (Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil)

I’ve just come from the opening night of Cirque du Soleil’s new show, “Volta,” and I am exhausted. It’s the feeling that comes after two hours of intensity. Some Cirque shows wow you with well-developed novelty acts you can’t forget. “Volta,” under a giant Cirque tent on the grounds of the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center at Oaks, has more traditional acts, but constantly dare-deviling: people twirling like centrifuges on ropes and bungees, bounding from trampolines, riding a unicycle.

And you won’t soon forget them, either. That daredevil on a rope — she’s putting her body through balletic contortions while the rope pulls her aloft … by the bun in her hair. The trampoline acrobats — you’ve seen this stuff before, but these men and women jump in and out of window openings from trampolines on two sides of a structure that looks as tall as some Philly rowhouses. The unicyclist? He twirls around with his female partner who (warning: this could be a spoiler) finishes the act by standing atop his head as he navigates the circular stage.

At intermission, I was thinking of “Volta” as a Cirque show specializing in extreme acrobatics. By the end of the show, after BMX bicyclists performed feats on their two-wheelers that you might expect to see only in a cartoon and guys propelled themselves through a hexagon that not only rose higher and higher but moved in a circle, I realized I’d underplayed it. “Volta” is radical acrobatics.

It left me breathless, and a little wilted by the thrill and the danger. (Cirque performers generally work without safety nets, and not a piece of the stretchy mesh appears on stage.) When you add to this the pumping and sometimes elegantly haunting music by Anthony Gonzalez from the French electric-music group M83 (beautifully sung here without real words), plus the wildly colorful costumes, the clarion sound and meticulous lighting, you witness the spectacle that the word is meant to define.

Many times over the years I’ve seen the Montreal-based Cirque — a powerhouse that’s changed the notion of what a circus is and has 19 different shows running around the world this year. I’ve always been whammed by the talent, even in a show like Las Vegas’ “Zumanity,” a seedy and stupefyingly dumb display based on human sexuality that nevertheless delivers some acrobatic goods with aplomb. “Volta,” which will be in residence at Oaks for the next five weeks, has its own remarkably questionable plot — a hallmark, it seems, of Cirque shows, which probably attract no one just for their storylines.

But here goes: A guy dressed all in gold and named Mr. Wow opens “Volta” with his “quiz show,” signaling the audience to holler “wow” if they like the first few presentations. In the last of these, a dancer named Waz performs beautifully and wins the loudest wows and thus the contest. But when Mr. Wow pulls the hat off Waz’s head, bringing forth unruly shocks of blue feathers instead of hair, Waz’s victory fizzles.

He is ostracized, ousted into the everyday world of people who ignore him as they constantly move by while eyeing their brightly-lit cellphones. Still, there’s a silver lining — or in Cirque, possibly an electrified and multi-colored one: Waz is now free to explore life on his own. That’s why signs around Cirque’s tent beckon you to “find your free.”

Hey, don’t blame me, I warned you. Mr. Wow, it turns out, is a facile Slinky-toy of a clown named Andrey Kislitsin, from Russia. Later in the first half, he cements his clown bona-fides in a sight-gag routine set at a laundromat. The poor rejected Waz is a Canadian, Joey Arrigo, with a six-pack that like many of the guys in “Volta” appears to have bloomed into a 12-pack and then some.

The plot resolves, sort of, when Arrigo performs an eye-popping dance in the second half that mixes several styles and folds in a hefty helping of acrobatics. Coupled with a routine he performs on a swinging lighting fixture in the first act when he flies, arms-spread, through the Cirque tent, Arrigo provides “Volta’s” most beautiful moments. Taken together, they are a prayer for the human body.

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“Volta,” produced by Cirque du Soleil, runs through August 19 at the Cirque tent on the grounds of the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center, 100 Station Ave., in Oaks, about seven miles northwest of King of Prussia. 1-877-924-7783 or cirquedusoleil.com/volta.

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