EQUAL parts trippy and sinister, Cirque Berzerk seems like the sort of phantasmagoric spectacle Tim Burton would dream up if he quit filmmaking to join the circus. With masks and characters that look as though they'd be at home in Jack Skellington's world, this 35-member troupe, which has previously staged several dinner-theater shows and Burning Man jaunts, presents "Beneath," its first full-length extravaganza under the big top, starting today.
"Stylistically we're a little grungier, darker, rougher and more theatrical than a typical circus," says Suzanne Bernel, who co-founded the theater with Kevin Bourque in 2004. The couple, now married, envisioned a circus that melds the jaw-dropping acrobatics of Cirque du Soleil with a neo-gothic aesthetic.
"Beneath" tells the Greek myth of Orpheus, who descends into the underworld to rescue his beloved Eurydice -- but with a psychological twist. "I always thought the wife was much more interesting than Orpheus," says Bourque, who composed the show's music. "Our story is much more about what she does in the underworld."
Turns out she does it all, including playing with acrobats, aerialists, contortionists, musicians and fire dancers. A quintet of cabaret dancers welcome her with a sultry, Bob Fosse-inspired number, while her husband sneaks in and discovers a diminutive "animal" trainer leading a tamed human through a balancing ball routine. The celebration eventually culminates in a blazing finale with nearly everyone in the cast handling some sort of fire instrument.
Traditionally, the ranks of big top performers were limited to those who were born to circus families or married into them. But Cirque Berzerk, with its do-it-yourself ethos, feels more like a hippie commune.
Many of the troupe's performers started out as servers at the dinner theater shows and were given opportunities to expand their performance skills. And everyone is expected to pull their weight behind the scenes as well. "We are a no-diva circus," Bernel says. "When we're not rehearsing, we're painting sets and making costumes. Every single performer helps set up the tent."
Like many of Cirque Berzerk's performers, Bernel came to the art from other disciplines. She had studied ballet and gymnastics as a child, and then chose college over the life of a company dancer. It was only in her late 20s, after seeing a flying trapeze rig at Burning Man, that she sought training. She immediately discovered the trapeze wasn't for her. "The first time, I screamed all the way across," she says.
"Did you mention that you're afraid of heights?" Bourque asks.
Despite the contradictions of an acrophobic aerialist, Bernel has a knack for silks, two dangling, 30-foot cords of fabric on which she spins, twists and shows off a graceful flexibility that would be impressive if she were just standing on the ground.
"I'm fine on silks. Just don't put me on an extension ladder," she says.
Neal Everett, who choreographed 90% of "Beneath" and plays Orpheus, has no such qualms. Growing up on a farm in the tiny town of Pittsburgh, Texas, he waited eagerly for the circus to come through every year. "I was always hanging from ropes, walking along the fence, teaching the pony to do tricks," Everett says. Following a stint as a college cheerleader at the University of Arizona, he moved to L.A., where he found a circus class and immediately started training.
There, he met Bernel, who had already been performing with Bourque, and the trio ended up forming a company almost by accident. "It was like 'Ooops! We have a circus,' " says Bernel.
These days, Cirque Berzerk's ambitions are grander. With a 490-seat tent waiting to be filled, the company poured all its resources and nearly a year into developing a fantastical reinterpretation of the Orpheus myth that makes the underworld look like the city's wildest nightclub.
"I want people to feel like they've been mesmerized when they come into this tent, like they've been sucked into another world," Bernel says. "I hope our show captures that sense of mystery."
WHERE: Los Angeles State Historic Park. 1245 N. Spring St., L.A.
WHEN: 8:30 p.m. today- Sun., July 27. (Beer & wine garden open at 6 p.m. for picnicking.)
PRICE: $35-$65 (10% discount for those who arrive by bus or bicycle)
INFO: www.cirqueberzerk. com
ON THE WEB: For more photos, go to latimes.com /cirqueberzerk