‘Traces’ ignites the stage at the Union Square Theatre

'Traces' at the Union Square Theatre — Photo courtesy of Michael Meneke

It’s hard to categorize Traces, a theatrical import from Montreal that recently set up shop at the Union Square Theatre in Manhattan. This difficulty over definition is one of the strongest attributes of this inspired production. It’s safe to say that you have never seen something like this before.

The 90-minute, intermissionless play features seven performers who dazzle with amazing acrobatic skill … but this is not a circus. The artists — including Mason Ames, Valérie Benoît-Charbonneau, Mathieu Cloutier, Bradley Henderson, Philippe Normand-Jenny, Xia Zhengqi and Florian Zumkehr — speak lines of dialogue and act their respective parts … but this is not a play. There’s loud, thunderous music that causes the audience’s toes to tap and heads to bob … but this is not a musical.

Traces is probably best explained as an original work of art that features energy and emotion personified. The seven performers work their way through a vague storyline involving a post-apocalyptic future; using an array of props and installations, the cast jumps, bounces, skateboards and climbs its way through death-defying acts that feature an artistic eloquence and precise execution.

'Traces' — Logo courtesy of The Hartman Group PR

The end result is brilliant.

The show opens with a frenetic scene where the performers jump around the stage and leap over each other’s backs. With the matching pulsating music and dizzying light display, it’s almost as if the audience has been transported into a music video. After things calm down, the performers move through several acts featuring astonishing feats of the body.

There’s one sequence involving two poles and the performers jumping from one to another — it’s truly breathtaking. Another act involves a see-saw mechanism that sends an actor flying to the heights of the Union Square Theatre and back down again onto a huge mattress.

Although much of the show is thrilling, not everything focuses on the thrills. There’s a clever vignette that simply features the cast dribbling and passing a basketball. Another one involves skateboarding, while another could be classified as a duet with an armchair.

Throughout the melee, there are quieter moments where the actors remind the audience there is a cloaked plot to the entire evening. Using cameras and a video display in the background, an artist draws a skyline in smoky ruins on a nearby canvas. Another artist finishes the picture with a destructive tidal wave.

At first, Traces feels like it might be a show featuring no dialogue — kind of like another Stomp or Blue Man Group, both of which play right up the block. However, it doesn’t take long for a microphone to descend from the rafters and for each of the performers to introduce themselves to the audience. Throughout the evening, they continue to divulge information, but it always remains mysterious. In some ways, it’s frustrating to never find out what the “point” of the show is, but in the same breath, it’s exhilarating to patch together the pieces and appreciate the nebulousness.

The simple set is framed by a connected tapestry of fabrics. It all adds to the post-apocalyptic feel.

Even though 7 Fingers, the company staging Traces, isn’t a typical circus troupe, the main highlights of the night are the acrobatic spectacles. It’s difficult not to be mesmerized by the agility, physical prowess and steely determination of these performers. They have their rhythms down pat, yet they allow improvisation to seep into their performances.

On the night I saw the show, there were a couple mistakes, which resulted in the typical “Oh, no, I hope he doesn’t break his neck” gasps from the audience. But like true professionals, each time the performers tripped up, they held their head high, brushed off the pain and tried again.

Traces is a unique show that has the power and creativity to become a downtown mainstay in New York City. Is it too early to say that this performance piece has the potential to run for years?

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
  • Traces

  • A 7 Fingers Production

  • Directed and choreographed by Shana Carroll and Gypsy Snider

  • Starring Mason Ames, Valérie Benoît-Charbonneau, Mathieu Cloutier, Bradley Henderson, Philippe Normand-Jenny, Xia Zhengqi and Florian Zumkehr

  • Playing at the Union Square Theatre at 100 E. 17th St. in New York City

  • Click here for more information. Tickets are $48-$78, with discounts and premium tickets available.

  • Running time: 90 minutes

  • Rating: ★★★★

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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