Michelle Matlock bugs out in 'Ovo'
by Richard Dodds
The role of a land-locked lovelorn ladybug has Michelle Matlock in a spin, even if she never joins her acrobatic Cirque du Soleil colleagues in achieving liftoff. "I don't get to fly," she said recently from Toronto. "I try on several occasions, and sort of twitter about. My character is aviation-challenged."
But helping create the central romantic character from the ground up in Ovo, Cirque du Soleil's latest touring production, has been a life-changing opportunity for the sometimes-struggling actress who backed her way into a clowning career. "It's been an incredible, fun, and exhausting experience," said Matlock, who until recently couldn't easily afford a Cirque du Soleil ticket. "I really feel blessed to finally be able to pay all those bills that have been accumulating."
Matlock isn't exactly an overnight ladybug. She first auditioned for Cirque du Soleil five years ago, and she made it from a group of 50 to the final four. "They said that they wanted to use me, but they had no idea where," Matlock said. "So I just moved on."
But Matlock's info remained in the Cirque files, and her chance finally came when the Brazilian writer-director-choreographer Deborah Colker was casting a new show set in the world of insects. After playing in three Canadian cities, Ovo will open Nov. 27 in the Grand Chapiteau tent pitched in a parking lot near AT&T Park, before moving to San Jose early next year.
Ovo imagines the creepy-crawly consternation that arises when a mysterious egg appears in their midst, and then there is the love story that arises when a quirky newbie insect catches sight of Matlock's colorful, full-bodied ladybug character, as imagined in Liz Vandal's trippy costumes.
"My character was described to me as someone who was sort of past her prime, and who hasn't found love yet," Matlock said. "It's a cute, simple love story. This show isn't as dark and complex as some previous Cirque shows."
Insect-costumed acrobats who perform the kind of stunts for which Cirque du Soleil is famous surround Matlock and two other clowns. "There is no spoken dialogue," she said. "Well, there is dialogue, but it's a bug language that we developed."
Matlock helped develop many aspects through months of workshops and rehearsals. "The creation process was really insane," she said. "It's a bunch of talented people trying to make something amazing with so many different ideas and tastes. It's incredible that anything gets done, but magically it does."
Though working on a far larger scale than sh
Her permanent move to New York from her native Washington State came about unexpectedly in 1994 when, in New York for a summer theater program, she found herself in a cab stuck in gridlock. "And the cab driver was, like, the gay people are marching. So we got out of the cab and joined the parade walking the whole of Fifth Avenue. It was probably one of the most pivotal moments of my life."
Matlock decided in short order not to return to college in Washington, and instead accepted a scholarship from the National Shakespeare Conservatory in New York. "I started out as an actress on the classical-training path when I got pulled into the circus world," she said. "I was juggling one day with a friend in Washington Square Park, and a scout from a clown program that Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines was developing asked if we were interested. I did clowning on cruise ships for a year solid, and off and on for five years after that. When I returned to New York, I discovered that circus performers seem to get paid more often than actors do in New York."
Even so, she was about to give up the struggle in 2005, and had even given notice on her New York apartment, when Performance Space 122 offered her a showcase for her one-woman show inspired by the original Aunt Jemima. The Mammy Project, which Matlock has since performed several times in SF, is a look at the cultural phenomenon of the mammy figure through the decades.
"That gig really took me to another level," Matlock said. "Before that, I just felt New York wasn't happening for me."
The Mammy Project is on hiatus while Matlock tours the continent through 2010 in Ovo. "But The Mammy Project is one of the shows that can go on forever. Well, at least I think I've got another good 15 years with her."
Ovo will run Nov. 27-Jan. 24 under the big top at AT&T Park. Tickets are $42-$125. Call (800) 450-1480 or go to www.cirquedusoleil.com/ovo.