Thursday, June 30, 2011

THEATER: Zarkana (Cirque du Soleil)

Forget, for a moment, the sight of a man climbing and balancing atop an unsupported ladder, and draw your eyes -- if you can -- away from the woman who scales his back and places a second ladder atop his shoulders before ascending and doing a hand stand from those towering heights, an aesthetically pleasing/terrifying feat of human architecture. The act itself is no doubt impressive -- that almost goes without saying for Cirque du Soleil -- but what's truly astonishing about the talent in Zarkana is how much of it creator François Girard simply throws into the background without comment or spectacle: those who cross from one side of the stage to the other whilst balancing on an overly large ball or spinning a narrow hula hoop around their knees. It demonstrates what might as well be the company's mantra -- "This is not enough" -- in that every time you think you've seen it all, with the large ensemble hanging from the walls and spiraling upside down from the ceiling, the stakes and sights are raised.

From a storytelling perspective, Zarkana is a beautiful, well-intentioned mess, but unlike, say, Spiderman, Girard (who writes and directs) is under no obligation to make the threads cohere. Personally, I could do without quite so much sensory overload, with additional "cast" members filling out the ensemble on gigantic video screens, but then again, this is supposed to be a circus. Besides, it is in part all of that chaos that helps us to really focus on the death-defying stunts (after all, even as we hold our collective breath, time and time again, we all survive). When Maria Choodu floor juggles seven balls, ricocheting them beneath cabinets or while climbing a narrow staircase, the supporting players freeze in support; it's only when Carole Demers finishes her flips and lands atop the rubbery Russian bar (a two-man-supported springboard) that the rest of the cast resumes their own smaller-scale acrobatics. There's only one ill-conceived piece, involving Cyr wheels (which actors spin within) and aerial hoops, in which so much is happening that none of it has the opportunity to truly impress us.

On the other side of the curtain, opening Act Two, there's yet another example of what makes Cirque du Soleil stand out as a boundary-pushing ensemble. With both feet planted firmly on the floor, using nothing more than her dexterity and skillful hands, Erika Chen uses sand to paint over a transparency projector, quickly assembling scenes related to Zarkana's "story." It's a brilliant and measured demonstration of how true art comes both from space and the absence thereof, and a reminder of just how much there is to admire and appreciate beyond the stunt-for-stunt's-sake. The same can be said for Anatoly Zalevskiy's hand balancing, both a distilled feat of gymnastics and an astonishing show of singular strength.

That said, the heart- and showstopper in Zarkana revolves around a device that's so impressive it makes the solid trapeze work that precedes it look almost perfunctory. This so-called "Wheel of Death," in which Ray and Rudy Navas Velez perform in tandem, starts out simply enough, with the brothers each in their own wheel, using their weight and kinetic energy to spin the centrally-connected wheels high into the air and then back down to earth (like a man-powered Ferris wheel). But once the entire structure is spinning and the two climb atop the wheels, playing catch-up with the machine's rotational force and then taunting it as they do so blindfolded, or while jumping rope -- it's spectacular. It's even more impressive when you factor in the Velez's earlier work (joined by another brother, Rony, and Roberto Navas Yovany) on the high wire: some people, perhaps, are at their most comfortable suspended in mid-air.

So far as the audience goes throughout Zarkana, we, too, are at our most comfortable suspended in disbelief, marveling not so much at the magician Zark's addled quest to recover his lost love, nor the songs he sings to snake- and spider-women along the way (impressively attired as they all are), but at the scope of the work, work that -- most impressive of all -- manages to fill both the enormous Radio City space and our small, tightly wound hearts. This is full-frontal escapism, and amid the Banquine and flag acts (one with twirling people being tossed, the other with butterflying flags), the twirling rope dancers, and, yes, the obligatory clowns, I can't think of a better way to currently lose yourself at the theater.

1 comment:

Tom said...

I was interested read this post.
ED Trial Pack