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It’s a bug’s life

Jules Becker
It’s a bug’s life
Michelle Matlock, a Shakespearean-trained performer, delights in her role as Ladybug in Cirque du Soleil’s latest live production “OVO.” (Photo: Benoit Fontaine)

Shakespearean-trained performer makes Cirque du Soleil debut as Ladybug in “OVO”

Imagine a classically trained actress playing a human-size ladybug in a full-scale insect world.

That is exactly what 30-something African American performer Michelle Matlock is doing at least through December in the tour of Cirque du Soleil’s latest live production “OVO.”

A graduate of New York’s National Shakespeare Conservatory, the St. Louis-born and Seattle-raised performer actually finds that her education and the shows that it has inspired have served her very well as she portrays the genial heroine Ladybug in her Cirque debut.

Matlock said she loves playing good-natured Ladybug and called her Cirque du Soleil debut “a great gig.” While “OVO” creates human-size ants, spiders, fleas, butterflies and other such creatures in a big top spanning insect universe, Ladybug is clearly one of the most scene-stealing and appealing characters in the show. Not only does Ladybug spread good cheer but also she shares a romance with a clowning but caring blue bug named Foreigner that becomes as fully developed a plotline as “OVO” has.

Her satisfaction with the role is total. “I enjoy the optimism she has and her outlook,” she explained. “She’s one of the most positive characters I’ve ever played.”

Of Cirque du Soleil itself, she offered, “I was interested in a company that created a vision outside the box” — precisely what she found in the now legendary Montreal-based company. “It’s nice to do that every night,” she added.

Ladybug wriggles happily one moment and flirts with Foreigner at another. She also strokes the enigmatic large title egg. She is a character capable of great love as well as good will.

“It’s significant for me to be playing a romantic lead even in a funny work like this,” she maintained. “It’s difficult for black women in the [showbiz] industry.”

In fact, one of her role models as a performer has been critically acclaimed actress Cicely Tyson who has not had the opportunity to play as wide-ranging repertoire of roles as her white counterparts.

At the same time, Matlock said acclaimed filmmaker Spike Lee, one-woman show expert Whoopi Goldberg and comedienne Carol Burnett  have also influenced her.

Beyond the pleasures of  Ladybug, Matlock has discovered that she has a real facility for playing a variety of characters — a talent that she began to develop at the Conservatory. “It taught us to write our own show,” she explained.

The most satisfying result of her hands-on work at school became a one-woman show called “The Mammy Project.”

Identifying “Project” as “the history behind Aunt Jemima,” Matlock described the focus of the show as “the stereotype of Mammy” and the impact it has had on contemporary American culture. Playing a total of 17 roles in this “history-based piece,” she portrays such real people as Hattie McDaniel in “Gone With the Wind” and Nancy Green, “the first woman hired to play Aunt Jemima.”

Yet the soul of her show — set at about the time of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair — are such independent figures as Renaissance man and statesman Frederick Douglass and reformer Ida B. Wells. “I focus on the activists that were there at that time,” she noted.

“The Mammy Project” has become a door opener for Matlock as well as a long-term success. “It helped me to get the role in Cirque,” she said. “It taught me how to develop a character with a physical point of view.”

“Project” has also proven a favorite, she pointed out, at universities all over the United States and South America for the last five years. Matlock has also been able to perform it off and on with the  Royal Caribbean Cruise Line.

This singular writer-performer has not stopped there. Besides “The Mammy Project,” she has also created a very different one-woman show called “The Sum of Us.”

Calling this piece “an amazingly crazy story set in the 1930s and 1940s,” she identified its subject as a cross-dressing singer named Gladys Bentley, a Harlem Renaissance performer who dressed in a tuxedo and was blacklisted by the infamous House Un-American Affairs Committee. Matlock has performed this equally original work at New York’s Dixon Place and such universities as UCLA and New York University.

Matlock is a talent, devoted to finding new subjects and investigating diverse territory, and so it goes with Cirque du Soleil.

“OVO” explores the beauty and the mystery of the insect world. Neither a cautionary tale of species taking over the strong documentary “The Hellstrom Chronicles,” nor a philosophically bent investigation a la Thoreau’s observations about warring ants, “OVO” embraces the whimsy and the majesty of nature itself.

As always, the visually inspiring designs — especially Gringo Cardio’s teeming insect habitat that the creators of Montreal’s acclaimed Insectarium would admire — are accompanied and complemented by world-class circus acts.  

Two standouts are the slackwire, gravity-defying crossing and an upside down unicycle act — both by  Spider.  Other memorable moments come from a highly poetic Spanish web duo from Butterflies and a trampoline and power track-driven Wall featuring 20 superbly coordinated performers running, jumping and climbing.

All of the programs’ amazing gymnasts and acrobats are dressed in Liz Vandals’ highly imaginative and colorful costumes, and the entire show is swept up in the spell of composer Bernia Ceppas’ alternately high energy and ethereal score.

Writer, director and choreographer Deborah Colker keeps all of the acts and habitat set pieces as carefully ordered as an exquisite cobweb. The character trio-Michelle Matlock’s ebullient Ladybug, Francois Guillaume Leblanc’s earnest and vulnerable  Foreigner, her charming love interest, and Joseph Collard’s protective yet often incorrigibly funny Filipo — prove a winning center for the sometimes silly but environmentally striking show.

All Cirque du Soleil fans should get caught up in the beguiling triumph that is “OVO.”

OVO, Cirque du Soleil, New Waterfront at Fan Pier and Pier 4, Boston, through August 29. 800-450-1480 or cirquedusoleil.com