Well, that was surreal.
My jaw must have dropped at least once during every act of Zarkana, Cirque du Soleil’s “fantastically twisted acrobatic extravaganza” now enjoying a return engagement at Radio City Music Hall. I managed to keep the astonished gasps to a minimum. But I did gasp, audibly, more than a few times and I was astonished continually.
Of course, astonishment is Cirque du Soleil’s stock in trade, but, even though I’d never seen any of their troupes perform live, since I’d seen them any number of times on television (Most recently and still inexplicably at the Academy Awards, and what was that all about? Seriously, has anybody explained why we were treated to bouncing acrobats instead of Muppets?) I went into Zarkana not figuring on being astonished. Impressed, certainly. Admiring, appreciative, sure. Amused, almost definitely. Astonished? Not so much.
Turns out it’s a little different when you’re in the same room watching people hanging by their heels forty feet over your head.
Your jaw drops. You gasp audibly. You are astonished.
Watching a human being thrown through the air like a football on a Hail Mary pass is astonishing. Watching several of them go flying one after another and not just being caught but caught standing upright on somebody's shoulders, now, that's a jaw dropper.
Some other jaw-droppers and astonishments:
Victoria Dvoretskaya and Dimitry Dvoretskiy's ladder act, especially when he climbed a wobbling and waving ladder while balancing on his forehead another wobbling and waving ladder with her doing handstands on the top rung.
The Wheel of Death, actually two wheels of death, a pair of giant spinning gerbil cages revolving in tandem on a rolling base while Carlos Marin and Junior Delgado ran and did flips and jumped rope on the outsides of the wheels.
Jugglers are typically astonishing for keeping their balls in the air. Maria Choodu astonished me by the number of balls she let hit the floor, deliberately. Instead of throwing them up, she threw them down, rapid fire, bouncing what looked like a dozen balls at once in thrilling patterns off the stage floor and the undersides of table tops and the inside walls of boxes.
And as astonishing to me as the acrobatics and the juggling, although in a different, was Erika Chen's sand painting act. Chen stands at a large glowing blue witch’s cauldron and moves her hands over its surface while on a large rear projection screen above and behind her we see what she's doing, which is painting with blue sand pictures of astonishing intricacy in a few, quick and seemingly simple swipes and scratches, rubbing out one and creating another in seconds.
Cirque du Soleil bills Zarkana as a "rock opera" and there's a story at work here or the semblance of one, at any rate, meant to tie all the acts together. Zark, a handsome young magician in a flowing cape and a suit of Victorianesque design apparently borrowed from Willy Wonka, has returned to the abandoned theater to search for the lost love of his life, his former assistant, Lia. He is tempted to give up his search and his love by four seductive mutants, a snake woman, a spider woman, a plant woman, and a giant pickled baby woman. Somehow the acrobats and the juggler and the sand painter and a mad scientist help Zark resist temptation and press on with his search for Lila. Clowns become involved.
Many, many clowns.
Mostly this is a way to fill the time between acts with songs and comedy and fill up the stage with outrageous costumes, spectacular lighting displays, and colorful sets that literally crawl with rear projections of giant snakes and twining plants and spinning stars and planets.
But it isn't all background and filler. Much of it continues distractingly while the main attractions perform. I could hardly keep my attention focused on the high wire act because of the snake woman's fire-breathing backup singers undulating and literally torch singing center stage.
Oh well. Christian Goguen, as Zark, and Meeta Chilana, performing all the mutant roles as well as Lia, carry off their songs with verve and panache, apparently confident the audience is following along and caring, the music by Nick Littlemore is thrilling and often quite beautiful and, when providing a soundtrack to the acrobatics, as enhancing as a great movie soundtrack.
And some of the clowning is actually funny. It's astonishing how some routines that must be as old as red noses and big shoes can still get laughs.
Photos courtesy of Cirque du Soleil.