Cirque du so Awesome

07/20/2011 4:00 AM |


Written and directed by François Girard
Music by Nick Littlemore

Cirque du Soleil usually stages its circuses under a big top. But its latest, Zarkana, plays out across—and above—the boards at Radio City Music Hall (through October 8). Inspired by and designed for this old Deco theater, Cirque’s spooky and sumptuous new spectacle is not just a series of stunning stunts: it’s a full-blown theatrical production, an extravagant feast for the eyes that, for two hours, fills every floor-to-ceiling inch of the enormous Radio City stage.

Staged just blocks from the Foxwoods, where Spider-Man is swinging from the rafters in competition for tourist dollars, Zarkana and its Marvel rival invite comparison: both feature epic rock scores, an actor sailing above the audience, and hard-to-follow stories. But Cirque’s acrobatics are so impressive they compensate for the befuddled plot. Spectacle expiates the narrative confusion: while Spider-Man has a stuntman sailing from proscenium to balcony and back again—again and again—Zarkana showcases aerialists twirling from ropes, flag-throwers fashioning a fabric-ballet in the air, daredevils defying death on complicated contraptions, human totem poles rising four people high, and a trapeze act made of people, swinging and tossing each other from group to group. So who needs developed characters?

There is a plot here, but damned if I know what it is: if you wanted me to explain why an octopus fetus with a human face#&8212;an animation on a monitor wheeled across the stage#&8212;moans “welcome to my funeral” near the show’s end, I couldn’t even begin to. Like a more nightmarish Tales of Hoffman, Zarkana is a succession of fantastic episodes, each with its own circus act, rock song and featured creature (a snake, a spider), playing with a Gothic aesthetic that approaches kitsch—somewhere between a Tim Burton movie and the Jekyll and Hyde Club. In each, we experience the extravaganzas for which Cirque productions are known, but the performers’ near impossible feats of strength, stamina and movement—works of art unto themselves—share prominence and stage-space with video, animations, singers and clowns; “It’s almost too much to look at,” my girlfriend said. Showcasing so many attention-grabbers, Zarkana is not just theater of spectacle. It’s a spectacle of theater.

(Photo: Jeremy Daniel, Richard Termine)