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The Cirque's Secret Weapon : Famed Montreal Troupe Has Mr. Sniff, and a Nose for Street Players With Big Top Talent

February 21, 1991|JAN HERMAN | Jan Herman covers theater for The Times Orange County Edition

Nothing could be further from the grim reality of the Persian Gulf War than the beautiful fantasy of Cirque du Soleil, which opens Friday at the South Coast Plaza parking lot in Costa Mesa.

Yet during a recent afternoon in San Diego, where the Montreal-based circus played earlier this month on its current North American tour, staff carpenter Peter Le Blanc was constructing a can non-like missile launcher behind the blue-and-yellow Big Top tent.

The launcher, designed along the lines of an old Prussian artillery piece rather than a Patriot battery, could become oper able in time to protect South Coast Plaza by firing a droop-nosed Everyman missile called Mr. Sniff, if not on opening night, within a week of it.

"I'm not supposed to talk about it," said Le Blanc, hinting cryptically that Mr. Sniff's ballistic plans cannot be predicted with any more accuracy than a Scud missile's and might well pose a danger to shoppers and circus-goers alike.

In the artists' rehearsal tent later that day, I caught up with Geoffrey Hoyle, the British-born creator of Mr. Sniff, who was getting ready to practice some of his most dexterous ground moves with a battered bowler hat. I asked him about the launcher.

"If (Gen.) H. Norman Schwarzkopf calls to say he needs a secret weapon," Hoyle replied, "Mr. Sniff may be it, although I think not. He is an anti-heroist."

The implication was that Mr. Sniff's trajectory might not carry him beyond the cannon's lip, much less across the circus ring. Without Mr. Sniff's huge proboscis on his face, moreover, Hoyle seemed no threat to anyone. His pale, round eyes had an innocent gaze. His voice was gentle.

But that is not to say he could not become dangerous. Put him in clown costume at center stage and he turns into what he termed "a human bomb," more than ready to blow up pride and property.

Hoyle, a former student of Parisian mime master Etienne Decroux, has been a theatrical explosive for years in the San Francisco Bay Area (where he lives) and, more recently, at the La Jolla Playhouse in "A Man's a Man," "Feast of Fools" and "Don Quixote de la Jolla."

"My interests lie in the anarchistic elements of the fool's role," said Hoyle, who joined the circus tour in San Diego as the clown soloist replacing David Shiner. "I really don't want the character of Mr. Sniff to get soft or pretty. I want to keep on the edge of risk, not to mention a certain amount of reality, because laughter comes in this situation from breaking taboos.

"If I go into the crowd and I take someone's clothes off or I mess with someone's possessions, that's a huge taboo, especially in America," he added. "People see the risk. They recognize it as something they probably would like to do themselves. So I'm enacting their unconscious desire. That has been a historical attribute of the clown from way back in primitive ritual."

Cirque du Soleil does not originate quite that far back. But Gilles Ste-Croix, who helped found the circus in 1984 and is its casting director, admitted that he, too, wanted Hoyle "to really rock the public." At first, though, Ste-Croix wondered just how daring Mr. Sniff would be.

Hoyle came in as a replacement on only 24 hours' notice (because Shiner had exercised an option to return to Europe) and, thus, had no time to adjust to the rhythm or the atmosphere of the show. By his second performance, however, Ste-Croix needn't have wondered.

"Geoff got hold of a lady's purse," he recalled in French-accented English. "He went through that purse like a scaven ger. He took the money, the credit cards, the car keys, the old Kleenex. The lady was really embarrassed."

The casting director, a former stilt walker who at age 41 calls himself the "grandfather" of the troupe, noted further that Hoyle provides a raw counterpoint to the slick beauty of "Nouvelle Experience," as this edition of the circus is titled. But, above all, the clown soloist serves as an essential link to the troupe's theatrical roots in street performance.

"We knew with our first edition that we had something different from the traditional circus," said Ste-Croix, who was sipping an espresso on the terrace of the artists' canteen after a tasty lunch (this circus travels with its own chef). "It wasn't the fact that we don't have animals. It was the way we present the acts. We are from the streets. We brought the essence of that into the tent.

"If you see a performer in the street, even a simple juggler, there is some kind of theatrical approach," he said. "In the early days, we presented each act that way. Then we refined it into a thematic style. 'Nouvelle Experience' is our most developed production in that respect."

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