Full disclosure: I’m not a sci-fi/fantasy fan. I’ve actively avoided all things “Game of Thrones,” seen maybe 15 minutes total of any “Lord of the Rings” movie and—this is hard to admit—I don’t think I would have loved Harry Potter as much as I do had I not started it at a young age. Needless to say, I was not part of the record-breaking crowds flocking to theaters for James Cameron’s “Avatar,” the inspiration for Cirque du Soleil’s “Toruk-The First Flight.”
I was more than a little surprised, then, how excited I was when I heard that Cirque had built a show around the world of Pandora, where “Avatar” is set…and that it was coming to Baltimore. After all, I had seen Cirque but once when I was around 8 years old, and all that remained of the experience was blurred memories of stunning aerials and women twirling through the sky in swaths of fabric.
Thirty seconds in, though, and I was hooked: The brilliant set transformed seamlessly into each of the regions of Pandora represented in the plot, and incredible light and sound design lent an almost magical quality to the representations of night, day and various weather events. Even the floor was exciting, a bouncy surface that served as a springboard for the near-constant acrobatics of the blue-skinned actors—particularly those not at the center of the action, whose backflips and cartwheels added interest to even the most basic scenes of dramatic exposition.
As for the story? It was fine, a standard hero’s journey that was primarily a semi-entertaining vehicle for the real star of the show—spectacle. And what a spectacle it was: Unbelievable aerial and ground-based acrobatics, dancing, costumes and music were amplified with the use of kites, “Lion King”-reminiscent puppets and even some seriously impressive fluorescent boomerangs. To describe it in detail would be to do it a disservice; it was impossible enough to see all of the action at once even as it was happening…but suffice it to say my sci-fi/fantasy prejudice was easily overcome.
I was significantly less pleased, however, by the show-coordinated app, which prompted the audience to interact with the performance at various points via push notifications. Call me old-fashioned, but I felt like my compulsion to periodically check my phone to make sure I wasn’t missing anything took me out of the show a bit. And even more than that, the permission to use phones during the performance encouraged a lot of people around me to have their phones out and open throughout the show, even when the app indicated that the effect was over (looking at you, Snapchat-happy lady in the seat in front of me).
Overall, I’d certainly recommend “Toruk: The First Flight,” and particularly to Avatar fans and those with kids (though there are some sections that may be frightening to young or sensitive children). As to whether I now have a burning desire to see the original “Avatar?” Pandora’s box is open now.
Catch the show through June 12 at Royal Farms Arena.