Zarkana: Theater Review

Jeremy Daniel
Cirque fans will get what they paid for, but others might find their amazement diminished by the more-is-more relentlessness of it all.

The latest show, directed and written by Francois Girard, centers on a magician named Zark who embarks on a journey to find his lost love Lia.

NEW YORK – A branding phenomenon with few equals in global entertainment, Cirque du Soleil needs no help from critics in finding its audience. With seven shows currently running in Sin City alone, there are possibly more employees of the Montreal-based behemoth than slot machines in Vegas. But in good conscience, this review must begin with a full disclosure. I don’t get the whole Cirque thing. I never have, and I get it even less after the company’s new show, the chronically busy acrobatic spectacular Zarkana.

If you’re a fan of Cirque’s patented and by-now familiar aesthetic, feel free to ignore this highly subjective review. If not, be warned: You might already overdose on Quebecois whimsy and start plotting carnage during the preshow. That’s when a gaggle of white-clad performers pose and strut around the deco foyers, staircases and balconies of Radio City Music Hall, wearing funny hats and doing cute things with umbrellas. At times, they squawk, cackle and jabber in nonsense language, an irksome forewarning of a lot more of that to come. For some of us, this is like being thrust into a mime hell jammed with inescapable street performers. For the gawking mob snapping away on their phone-cams, it clearly spells extravaganza.

Aside from touring tent spectacles on New York’s outskirts, Cirque’s Manhattan penetration has been limited to the kid-targeted holiday show Wintuk, which played seasonal engagements at Madison Square. A more recent attempt to gain a foothold with the vaudevillian clown act, Banana Shpeel, was a rare flop for the company. In creating a $50 million show specifically designed for this large proscenium theater, Cirque has reverted to its traditional formula.

About a dozen legitimate circus acts -- from the standard-issue to the more exotic, several of them genuinely impressive -- get stretched, padded and often distractingly undermined by copious dollops of performance filler. This involves more twee cavorting, clowning, posing and noise-making from the eccentrically outfitted ensemble (see: preshow, above).

Zarkana was written and directed by Francois Girard, who staged Cirque’s ZED in Tokyo and whose credits range across opera, theater and film (The Red Violin, Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould). Supposedly, there is a story. A magician named Zark (Garou), whose powers are on the fritz, gets trapped in a tenebrous realm that comes to life as he embarks on an odyssey to find his lost love, Lia (Cassiopee). Or something.

Billed as a rock opera, Zarkana has a cheesy score by Nick Littlemore that intersperses tinkly-winkly Danny Elfman-esque strains: There are a lot of bombastic ballads for Zark and torchy numbers of dark deception for Lia’s various sinister underworld incarnations, among them a witchy serpent in a towering funnel dress and a spider woman suspended in a massive web. Canadian vocalist Garou’s songs veer across an ’80s retro spectrum that spans brooding Brit pop, Michael Bolton-style syrup and blustery hair metal. The lyrics, however, are too bland to serve as anything more than aural wallpaper.

“Acrobats and clowns, wake up, dance and fly,” sings Zark. Among those who comply are a juggler, a ladder-climbing balancing trio, another three balance-bar virtuosos, high-wire walkers, hand-standers, flag throwers, aerial hoop twirlers, a sand-painting artist and two Ecuadorian brothers who stroll, jog, leap and tumble around a giant contraption ominously called the “Wheel of Death” -- basically, twin hamster treadmills on a spinning central axis. Their dexterity makes this death-defying dance with high-speed machinery look effortless.

All these acts show remarkable precision, concentration and discipline. The most beautiful of them are two Chinese rope aerialists and a superb group of trapeze artists, mainly from Russia and the Ukraine, who appear oblivious to the laws of gravity. Those graceful balletic interludes are sufficiently captivating to block out the freak-show frou-frou happening elsewhere onstage, but it’s a challenge.

At one point, a doll-like figure falls into a huge flacon of liquid and turns into a mutant baby with six arms. Another chap gets shoved into a pressure cooker and comes out transformed into Uncle Fester, brandishing a glowing light bulb. A little of the two clowns that appear at intervals goes a long way, though kids in the house appeared to find them funny. And they get major laughs during a protracted bit involving an electric chair and an audience volunteer. One of the clowns gets shot out of a cannon in simulated slo-mo, and in a rare sign of a sly sense of humor at work, he alludes midair to both Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and the Charlie Sheen tour.

But despite Girard’s strenuous efforts to create a bewitching atmosphere of mystery, enchantment and mischief, there just seems to be a whole lot going on to no clear purpose. From the elaborate frames that wrap the stage to the constant wash of imagery over the rear LED wall (floating eyeballs, writhing snakes, you name it) to the carnival-esque jumble of costumes and the bombardment of overbearing, high-decibel music, Zarkana is burdened by inorganic clutter and sensory overload. All of which just pulls focus from the undisputable skill of the circus acts.

Venue: Radio City Music Hall, New York (Through Oct. 8)
Director-writer: Francois Girard
Artistic guides: Guy Laliberte, Gilles Ste-Croix
Cast: Garou, Cassiopee, Maria Choodu, Anastasia Dvoretskaya, Victoria Dvoretskaya, Dmitry Dvoretskiy, Di Wu, Jun Guo, Frederico Pisapia, Giuseppe Schiavo, Vincenzo Schiavo, Marco Senatore, Carole Demers, Johnny Gasser, Yuri Kreer, Ray Navas Velez, Rony Navas Velez, Roberto Navas Yovany, Erika Chen, Anatoly Zalevskiy
Direction of creation: Line Tremblay
Set and props designer: Stephane Roy
Costume designer: Alan Hranitelj
Lighting designer: Alain Lortie
Music: Nick Littlemore
Choreographers: Debra Brown, Jean-Jacques Pillet
Image content designer: Raymond St-Jean
Acrobatic performance designer: Florence Pot
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