nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
June 26, 2011
A spider lady watches over acrobats as they perform stunts that could surely lead to horrible injury if done wrong. A man connected to a massive rigging system flies through the audience pretending to shoot webs at patrons. Larger than life set pieces and LED screens transport us from New York City to different galaxies. A pulsating rock score punctuates the action.
This is Zarkana, Cirque du Soleil’s presumably unintentional $50 million answer to the $70+ million Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark. It would be remiss not to wonder if some of the similarities between the two productions are intentional. Clearly, some are. But the Montreal-based troupe, which has been developing Zarkana for two years, could never have imagined that Spidey’s unprecedented delays could lead to the two going head-to-head. Ultimately, Zarkana, now in a few-month residency at Radio City Music Hall, provides heart-stopping thrills for young and old, even if it is pretty uneven.
The biggest problem is its book and score, though audiences don’t go to Cirque shows for their plots. Zarkana, written and directed by Francois Gerard with a score by Nick Littlemore, is basically incomprehensible. From what I understood, a magician named Zark (played by the Quebec-based pop singer Garou) has lost both his lover and his magical powers and has organized this show, in an abandoned theater, to try and win both back. The over-amplification swallows up Littlemore’s lyrics, not that they’re anything special (buzzwords like “love” and “revolution” are repeated ad nauseum), and his bombastic and ethereal rock score is generally tuneless, though suitable backup for the world-class acrobatics.
Amongst the specialty acts, there are a handful of pace-killers, as well. A sand painter creates gorgeous artwork before our eyes, yet that too slows down the rhythm. A sequence called the “Pickled Funeral,” where the projection of a multi-limbed baby trapped in a pickle jar welcomes us to its funeral, is just downright bizarre and occasionally horrifying in concept. And a clown duo, presumably to cover set changes (the massive and gorgeous set, which combines huge automated circus equipment and the LED screens, is designed by Stephanie Roy, with costumes by Alan Hranitelj), kill the momentum every time they walk on stage. The only time that doesn’t happen is when one of them flies, quite slowly, around the auditorium, pretending to shoot webs at patrons, and even hooking a Spider-Man jersey to his rigging.
But the production comes to exhilarating life in the death-defying acts of derring-do, from high-wire walkers to grand Volant (trapeze) artists. A blonde gymnast with strikingly toned leg muscles somersaults in the air and lands perfectly on a balance beam. Two men perform truly jaw-dropping feats on the wheel of death. A pair of tightrope walkers carry, by their shoulders, a third who’s walking his own tightrope. Of course there are nets, some of which are visible, but I often felt that queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach as I watched in agony and ecstasy the acrobats perform these feats without batting an eyelash.
This is why audiences flock to Cirque du Soleil, and if that’s what you want to see, you certainly won’t be disappointed.