If the aims of the Lookingglass Theatre were purely fiscal or populist, there would no reason to ever close "Hephaestus: A Greek Mythology Circus Tale." Just steps from Magnificent Mile shopping, Chicago now has a live, 75-minute, all-human circus spectacular featuring stellar international artists and combining dazzling gymnastics, thrilling feats of daring, exciting contemporary visuals and (best of all) powerful, classically themed storytelling right at the heart of the unique Lookingglass — and the Chicago — tradition.
They don't have that at Gurnee Mills. Or the Mall of America. About the only place with something comparable is the Las Vegas strip. Granted, the spectacles of the incomparable Franco Dragone ("O") recommend the desert. But tickets cost about triple, and you won't get the kind of intimate charge afforded by a show in the 220-seat Water Tower Water Works, where the high-wire wobbles a few feet from your head. You'd think those Michigan Avenue merchants would try to keep this family-friendly thing going for good.
Lookingglass, of course, has other things it wants to do. And it's tough to keep a cast together like the group Tony Hernandez has assembled for this reprise engagement of a circus-style telling of the mythic, inspiring story of a young fellow — well, young god — who overcame the disadvantage of being the runt-ish offspring of Zeus and Hera, whose dysfunctional marriage neither drug nor therapist could fix.
When it bowed in 2005, "Hephaestus" only played a few weeks because the cast was headed off to various international engagements. Many have returned this time, but the show also features such newcomers as the glamorous Anna Stankus, who plays the kind of Aphrodite that few could resist, which is the whole point of Aphrodite.
In essence, Hernandez (who also plays the title role, superbly) and Heidi Stillman forged the narrative frame around the existing circus acts of the performers. And we're not talking about actors who've taken a few movement classes, but circus professionals who've been at this stuff since the cradle.
It was always a great, simple idea — but this time the storytelling feels much sharper and the thematic links to the Greek myth more adroit and specific. Thrones become rings. Gods fly. Not all the visual ideas feel wholly original — there are nods to the likes of "Stomp" and Blue Man Group. But I find this show more emotionally engaging than those impressive peers. The inspiring high-wire climax — a metaphoric assent to Mt. Olympus that looks terribly dangerous — superbly encapsulates the show's main theme of overcoming those tricky familial challenges that befall gods as well as a lot of Midwesterners.
Few things are as pleasurable in the theater as watching an audience experience something that exceeds their expectations. This one has people's mouths hanging open.
"Hephaestus" When: Through March 9 Where: Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes Tickets: $30-60 at 312-337-0665