Theater archives

Zarkana Goes Swinging: Willie Geist Reviews Cirque du Soleil


The thing about seeing a trapeze show on opening night in New York is that the circus onstage is always slightly less entertaining than the circus in the audience. The lady who opened Cirque du Soleil’s latest big-money spectacle, Zarkana, by speed-bouncing eight balls while walking up and down a staircase was wildly impressive—she really was. Masha Choodu showcased in dazzling style the kind of skill that must have been developed over a childhood filled with hours of solitude somewhere in the remote reaches of a breakaway Russian republic.

But how could this world-class juggler ever hope to measure up to what we’d all seen just before the curtain rose? Three decked-out Real Housewives of New York City—Jill Zarin, Sonja Morgan, and, yes, The Countess herself—posed near their orchestra seats for a series of group photographs with the full house gawking. One of the Cirque clowns tasked with warming up the crowd had his path down the aisle blocked by a Wall of Housewives. Rather than risk upsetting New York royalty, the grease-painted jester found another path to the Radio City stage. Smart clown.

When the lights went down and the Housewives, and Regis, and Ralph Macchio (all there) took their seats, Zarkana did what Cirque du Soleil does. It performed outrageously fantastic acrobatic feats. (Ever seen a guy climb up a free-standing ladder that’s teetering on top of a piano, then balance another ladder on top of his head, then have a petite woman climb those ladders up into the fly system of Radio City Music Hall? Neither had I.) All the performers, though, fight for attention with the giant, flashing set pieces, the loud music with grating vocals, a vague, unnecessary narrative (this Zark guy, who sings a bit like Michael McDonald, has lost his powers, but, really, don’t worry about it), and a collection of elaborately costumed supporting players who leap and mime in the shadows. At one point, I had to point out to my wife that there was a man walking, in almost complete darkness, on top of a giant beach ball across the back of the stage while the attention of the audience was drawn elsewhere. Just seems like they could have given the guy a spotlight for his trouble.

I understand it’s precisely all this light and noise that creates the trippy wonderland for which Cirque du Soleil has become so rich and famous over the years. But at the end of the day, we’re there to the see the circus. Even approaching middle age, we watched with a mix of thrill and cover-your-eyes horror as The Velez Boys, wearing yellow unitards a size too small, dashed across a high wire and flipped around The Wheel of Death. You can’t help but have the anxious “Are we about to witness something tragic?” feeling as you watch Canadian Carole Demers flip to the ceiling and land back on a bar no more than a foot wide. All this happening on a stage where the excitement level typically peaks when the toy soldiers do the old domino routine at Christmastime.

Sure, you feel a bit like you’re at the Bellagio in Vegas or at the modern Moulin Rouge in Paris (not the Moulin Rouge of Toulouse-Lautrec. I’m talking about today’s “We’re in from the Twin Cities, where are the T-shirts and tater skins, see-voo-play?” Moulin Rouge), but you oughta go see Zarkana for the daredevils alone. Some things never get old. Especially those Housewives, by the way.