Centaur Theatre, Montréal Complètement Cirque; 11th July 2016
Blizzard Concept’s show Opéra pour Sèche-Cheveux (or ‘Hairdryer’s Opera’) begins with a riveting succession of foam balls that seem to float magically in midair. The two French performers are Antoine Terrieux – the magician – and Julien Mandier, the clown/juggler. At first, we see just the balls, floating, hovering, sashaying, moving as puppets, with the puppeteers behind the scenes controlling it all. For an ‘opera’, the show is surprisingly devoid of music, except for that conveyed by the sounds of hair dryers themselves. A persistent hum can definitely be heard, which adds to an otherworldly effect and inspires the childish glee we reserve for things that hover or fly.
As the performers’ heads appear from behind the curtain, by stages the mask of separation is removed. Now we get to see the flawed men behind the puppet screen – the imperious magic maker Terrieux and the man he would restrict to the sidelines and strap down with hairdryers, Mandier. It is clear to us that poor Mandier aspires to be the master Terrieux carries himself as. Every trick of Terrieux is done with panache, even if it is just ridiculously catching a balloon on his head or stuffing many balls in to his mouth (and that’s the sort of thing it usually is). But Mandier cannot ever seem to muster the confidence required to pull off such stunts, and his poor attempts are as infuriating to Terrieux as they are amusing to the audience. The constant struggle to best one another is the fuel that keeps the tension building and the laughs growing in this story, even while keeping perfect pace with the crescendo of their stunts.
In spite of all of the fun and laughs, the theme of control runs deep in the show. Terrieux creates a balloon person and animates him with the power of wind, like Dr. Frankenstein or God himself. Mandier is often posed and positioned like a bendy doll to create the perfect angle that allows more balls to float in the air around his blow-dryer clad form. Electricity is the currency the magician frantically employs to control, unfurling power chords, and switching the dryers on and off, while Mandier is a kind of puppet himself – at one point blown over himself by all the hairdryers strapped onto him – and always meekly accepting his role. At least, until failures and repeated humiliation give him the courage to revolt.
The ultimate humiliation (the funniest scene), is when Mandier is exposed behind a screen in his underwear, completely bedecked in power strips and nine hair dryers, a cyborg unicorn with a bike helmet-blow dryer. Like a conductor, Terrieux directs his partner to float nine balls in the air with perfect aplomb. Mandier is at first cowed, then gains confidence from the audience’s feedback and his growing ability. With this confidence, he gets the nerve to stand up to his bullying magician friend who ultimately takes things too far by producing a BB gun and shooting a balloon full of confetti hovering over Mandier’s head, soon after switching off the power by the same method, in spite of Mandier’s pleas. Terrieux even gets the compliance and approval of the audience before that last stunt, helping us all to cross the line with him in a last ditch effort to gain power with a weapon—something that at first feels comic and shockingly naughty in this PC era, but cruel enough to make us wince with guilt, even as Mandier has reached his breaking point and takes his revenge on his former puppeteer, much to everyone’s relief.
It’s at this point in the show, where the talking increases and crosses over to something of a stand-up comedy routine, all hair dryers cease to operate as Terrieux heaps abuse upon the audience in his embarrassed rage at having been bested at last by his protégé. Throughout the entire show, as their relationship evolves and the action rises, the sound level increases, more hair dryers, more commands barked and eventually full scale language is reached just as chaos strikes the stage.
The Hairdryer’s Opera works so well because there is something both masterful and charming about the seamless way Terrieux and Mandier blend magic, juggling and their simple narrative: only seconds after a trick does one realize it even was a trick. But even more impressive than the ball and balloon tricks are the complex workings the men express about their relationship, through simple physical gestures and awkward body language. The moments of fun, laughter and suspense at the novelty of hovering items juggled above continue throughout the show, and compliment the subtle undertones of manipulation and control buried in this dark comedy about the breakdown of a working relationship.