On Friday’s opening night of “Totem” in San Francisco, real human drama complemented, and nearly trumped, Cirque du Soleil’s ethereal thrills and chills.
When one of five amazing unicyclists — who were tossing bowls and catching them in stacks on their heads — had a mishap and had to leave, the tension was palpable as her fellow performers went on with the show.
When she returned to the stage moments later and the full act resumed, the resolution perfectly exemplified the beauty, power and magic of live theater — in particular, Cirque’s trademark blend of heart-stopping stunts, mind-blowing technological feats and gorgeous costumes, loosely joined by universal themes.
As the popular French Canadian circus creators promise, “Totem” — under its big tent near AT&T Park after the less successful “Quidam” was at the Cow Palace in the spring — takes visitors on a journey through time, space, science and legend.
Written and directed by Robert Lepage (whose other Cirque show, “KA” in Las Vegas, remains the company’s best), “Totem” is top-flight, wondrous entertainment.
While characters and scenery evoke as many questions as answers (as they do in many Cirque shows), they also bolster particularly great acts, from the opening high bars (in which swinging acrobats dressed as amphibians represent the origins of earth), to the closers (in which stuntmen balancing on even higher bars are flying cosmonauts, attempting to defy gravity).
Although themes touching on human evolution and diversity don’t necessarily add up to a tidy whole, each act is fantastic.
Sexy couples are highlights: A trapeze duo cleverly plays out figurative as well as literal ups and downs of romance in a delightfully attitude-filled act, while skaters in majestic Native American garb — sounds funny, but it works — do amazing things on wheels.
Dancers athletically and artistically weaving hoops around their bodies dressed as Amerindians are refreshingly bold and new, as is the show’s scientist, who juggles glowing balls inside a big, cone-shaped beaker.
An acrobatic crystal man glitters like a human disco ball, while two female jugglers, dressed in similarly shimmering costumes, toss spinning squares of cloth on their feet — an absurdly wonderful vision.
Athletes displaying strength and finesse on rings also double as a comedy act, as two men vie for a woman’s attention on the beach.
The beach is one of “Totem’s” many scenes — others are a marsh, the ocean and the sky — brought to life by vivid projections onto a nifty platform at center rear stage. The platform has a moving bridge that transforms into a boat, plane, rocket and monolith reminiscent of the one in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
In the pioneering spirit of that film. “Totem” is an exciting display of human strength, creativity, evolution and destiny.
Presented by Cirque du Soleil
Where: Big Top, AT&T Park, Parking Lot A, 74 Mission Rock St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 4 and 8 p.m. most Thursdays-Saturdays, 1 and 5 p.m. Sundays; closes Dec. 11
Tickets: $55 to $360