Trains—are there any more freighted (sorry) symbols of romance? Passenger travel continues to be something this country is pretty terrible at, in terms of needing a lot more of it, but trains themselves remain emblems of mystery, excitement, enchantment, change. Sure, there was that pesky murder on the Orient Express. But it was the Orient Express, c’mon.
A.C.T.’s “Passengers” (at the Toni Rembe Theater through October 9), an acrobatic fantasia featuring limber young members of Montreal’s 7 Fingers company, does everything it can to invoke that spirit of romance, while also wowing us with flipping, floating, and flying bodies. It’s a wonderful trip, even if the theme hangs loose as a puff of steam around the glittering gymnastic acts.
Written, directed, and choreographed by Shana Carroll, who cofounded the contemporary circus company in 2002, “Passengers” mixes French Canadian “cirque” flavor with a theatrical nostalgia that summons pre-“Stomp” avant-garde spectacles of the 1980s, like those of Robert Wilson or some early New Wave concerts, especially ones that channeled a sepia-toned, fedora-adorned view of the 1940s. Light projections, ingenious props, and daredevil stunts fill the stage with light and action as nine performers showcase their talents, from juggling and slack-lining to hula-hooping and tissu.
And, like the Agatha Christie chestnut mentioned above, “Passengers” sweeps any unpleasant train-related imagery—refugees, concentration camps, desperate migrants, COVID risk—right out the window. No “Different Trains” stopping here. We’re solidly stationed in the realm of comfy cliches (leaving home, arriving at an exciting and baffling new city, flirting with a stranger), immersed in a refreshing if airy borderlessness emanating from the international cast and a lively soundtrack that could have been snatched from a Putumayo CD.
The show kicks off with a beautiful, melancholy number. A departure board clacks, and a series of sighs slowly accelerates into a locomotive chug that shows off everyone’s skill in a blur of choreography. I wanted to move from there into a deeper exploration of each performer’s character and story, and along the way we do get some charming glimpses that define their personalities more, even if their individual journeys seem hazy.
British contortionist Kaisha Dessalines-Wright gets an extended monologue as she expertly wriggles through wheeled luggage racks and large suitcases, stopping time to rearrange her castmate’s bodies into narratively suggestive tableaux, followed by a wistful song, lit like an ingenue before an old-fashioned Shure Brothers microphone. But I can’t recall any concrete details other than it was a nice interlude and wow, can Kaisha bend.
The same for an extended meditation on Einstein’s use of trains as metaphors in his Theory of Relativity, which didn’t quite live up to its time-bending potential, although it did include a cheeky line about why train rides can seem boring (time moves slower when you’re aboard!). An ensemble moment with everyone packed into a single compartment—”excuse me!” “achoo!” etc.—felt like it should have just given in to its urges and become an all-out “Stomp” number, but seemed to peter out.
When the train imagery gels with the acrobatics, however, the show is pure magic. Quebec’s Méliejade Tremblay-Bouchard dazzled with a hula-hoop act that at one point used the spinning circles from her every limb to conjure a speeding engine. A thrill shot through me when it became apparent that Agentinian Marco Ingaramo’s Chinese Pole act was being echoed visually in the projections with telephone poles and transmission towers. Guatemalan juggler Santiago Rivera Laugeraud made clever use of train seats and suitcases in his rousing turn.
Unrelated to trains, as far as I could tell, Cambodia’s Dina Kok (slackline and tumbling), Florida’s Mandy Orozco (tissu and aerial hoop) and Finland’s Nella Niva (trapeze) mesmerized. A climatic aerial duet from Brazil’s Beto Freitas and the UK’s Andrew Sumner somehow called up the right emotion to pull the show into the final station. The story in “Passengers” may be a wisp, but the action moves on its own dynamic power.
PASSENGERS runs through October 9 at A.C.T.’s Toni Rembe Theater. More info here.