Company XIV supposedly takes their name and cues from the sinful extravagances of Louis XIV, but while there’s perhaps an abandoned opulence to be found in things like the crystal and gold chandeliers serving as mere footlights, the truth is that nothing in Rococo Rouge seems to be wasted. Maybe it’s the effect of this tighter theater, and the way that the ever-inventive Austin McCormick has absolutely no problem finding ways to fit acts of all size and shape onto the stage. Or perhaps it’s just the natural evolution of a tight-knit company like this, with their aesthetic aging like the best of wines–a little bit of naughty alcohol, a whole lot of nice, rich texture. Each of the baker’s dozen of acts may mash up operatic renditions of contemporary tunes with Baroque ballet, but each individual element feels expansive, not cramped. In any event, don’t think of this as a miniature Cirque du Soleil, even if the acrobatic use of a Cyr wheel or a graceful aerial duet within an elevated metal hoop brings them to mind. It’s more intimate than that; the sort of act you drink and drown in, rather than see swallowed up by the stage.
With the exception of an overly nail-on-the-head interpretation of “Fancy” as a fan dance (it doesn’t help that the parodic lyrics come across as second-rate after Weird Al’s “Handy”), there’s a subtlety and sexuality to McCormick’s work that I cannot adequately sing the praises of. It’s burlesque, but not bawdy; precise without being profane. Davon Rainey’s bring-down-the-house performance isn’t a lip-synced pantomime to Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?”: it’s an emotional struggle against disillusionment. (He’d make a great emcee in Cabaret.) It’s also impossible to adequately complement lighting designer Jeanette Yew, from the green neon suffusing (and shadowing) Laura Careless’s writhing during Katrina Cunningham’s slowed-down version of “Toxic” to the chiaroscuro way the Klieg light enhances Cailan Orn’s rhythms throughout snippets of text from Jean Cocteau’s “Le Bel Indifferent.” (Suffice to say that Beckett would be both dizzy and proud.) Over the course of the night, as the wonders accumulate, Rococo Rouge transcends the sum of its parts–although you’d be hard pressed to find another show that transitions so easily from Dvorak’s classical “Song to the Moon,” gymnastically accompanied by Allison Ulrich and Steven Trumon Gray, to an operatic (and Italianate) version of Lorde’s “Royals” (sung live by Brett Umlauf), before settling down with an acoustic version of Beyonce’s “Drunk in Love,” Cunningham singing and dancing beneath a ruby rain of glitter.
Meanwhile, lest my dazzled imagination leave anyone out, let’s also credit Zane Pihlstrom, who clads the cast–men and women alike–in corsets, heels, and beribboned lace: if this is an extravagance, it’s one that frees up the cast, both sexually and physically, helping to further accentuate each moment, whether that’s a pole dance or a can-can. Shelly Watson neatly emcees the evening (and gets in on the action, worry not!), and guitarist Rob Mastrianni keeps things bouncing during the two brief, drink-serving intervals. Those drinks, incidentally–such as the vodka, fernet, Lemon, ginger, and angostura Guillotine–are delicious and worth noting as well, especially since the bar stays up as late as your adrenaline . . . though also largely unnecessary, as you’ll be drunk enough off of Rococo Rouge. This isn’t a hallucination of excellence: it’s the real thing.