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Zarkana

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Zarkana
Zarkana
Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Have you ever imagined that when the lights at Radio City Music Hall go out, the entire theater becomes a ramshackle Victorian graveyard for spirits, phantasms, and high-wire acts? Well, Cirque du Soleil has! The troupe has commandeered the venerable entertainment venue to fashion its latest spectacle, Zarkana, around exactly that concept. Whether you’ve seen all this before — and if you’ve seen almost any other Cirque du Soleil show, you certainly have — is beside the point here: This is head-to-toe environmental theatre of the kind that Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark aimed for but never quite achieved. Whether or not that’s a good thing is an issue best discussed elsewhere. (That one of the scenes features a stage-filling spider web does little to discourage comparisons.)

The upshot is, unlike the Circus of the Sun’s last site-specific outing, Banana Shpeel (which played a mercifully brief run at Radio City Music Hall’s sister theater, the Beacon, last year), this one really makes the most of its locale. The gorgeous Art Deco interior is thankfully untouched. But once that giant curtain rises, on an ever-shrinking succession of false prosceniums and a spate of ghoulish set pieces, you’re transported immediately and entirely to a fantastical world that recalls James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim’s ghostly musical, Follies, all coked up and staged at Bellevue Hospital on Halloween. But the effect works (as much as it needs to), convincing you (as much as it needs to) that you’re seeing half-there shades of entertainment’s past. Could that juggler and that weird snake woman have played RCMH once upon a time? Probably not. But... maybe.

So kudos to Stéphane Roy for sets and props, Alan Hranitel for the costumes, and Alain Lortie for the lighting, all of which help sustain this tenuous illusion for a full two hours and 15 minutes. If not for them, you might be forced to focus just the tiniest bit on Zarkana’s story, and that would be undesirable. Why François Girard, who wrote and directed the show, insisted on having as much of one as he tries is anyone’s guess. It’s persistent but so incomprehensible, whether as spoken or sung (musical director Nick Littlemore wrote the emphatically circuitous songs, which reduce matters of the heart to the echoes of a swirling acid trip), that you’re bound to give up before the end of the first scene. There’s a magician named Zark (played by Canadian singer Garou), who’s pining for the woman (sung by Cassiopée) who got away, and so he... Enh, who cares. (The “subplots,” which include a pair of magic-performing dogs named Hocus and Pocus and a giant water fetus, are, amazingly, even less noteworthy.)

Zarkana
Zarkana
Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

What really matters here, as in all Cirque du Soleil shows, are the acts. And if they’ll be familiar to devout followers of the franchise, that doesn’t mean they’re still not enjoyable and harrowing in their own inimitable way. The red-haired Goth juggler (Maria Choodu) is gifted at keeping half a dozen tennis balls bouncing or flying at once. Three balance artists (Anastasia Dvoretskaya, Victoria Dvoretskaya, and Dmitry Dvoretskiy) teeter atop ladders trying (and quite nearly succeeding) to scale all the way up into the flies. A couple (Di Wu and Jun Guo) carry out a quietly rapturous romance swinging on a rope in various combinations. Carole Demers performs gravity defying acrobatics before landing on a Russian bar that Johnny Gasser and Yuri Kreer hold aloft. The second act ignites with a sedate but spellbinding start as Erika Chen uses sand, a piece of glass, and a video camera to “draw” a series of alluring pictures of men and women paying tribute to the universe’s mysteriousness.

There are a couple of big group numbers, alternately featuring cyr wheels and aerial hoops, trapezes, and flags. But, as usual, the most electric events are the ones that taunt death most openly: Ray Navas Velez, Rony Navas Velez, Rudy Navas Velez, and Roberto Navas Yovany team up in the first act for a balance-testing high-wire routine (with a net, don’t worry); then Ray and Rudy return in the second to conquer the Wheel of Death, a spinning metal contraption that combines two cages and centrifugal force to fashion a terrifying obstacle for the two men to routinely climb around and jump onto as it rotates at increasingly ferocious speeds some 30 feet above the stage. (If you’re even the slightest bit afraid of heights, and you’re not already seated in the stratosphere, this is as nerve-wracking to watch as it is exhilarating.)

It’s easy to quibble with some of Girard’s choices here — he keeps the stage strangely busy, often with too many things to look at, and pushes some performers upstage and into difficult-to-see positions behind scenic elements — but that, like trying to derive consistency from everything (or anything) that happens, is a waste of time. You’re supposed to just sit back and enjoy the ride, and forget about the story (much as Girard does after intermission). As that kind of a diversion, Zarkana does satisfy on the visceral level it intends — but it’s hard not to wish that an evening such as this, which at least wants to appear as though it’s aspiring for more, would try a bit harder to achieve it. The only substantive message it sends is one that all theatrical practitioners should remember anyway: When you lock up the theater for the night, make sure the ghost light is on.


Zarkana
Through October 8
Radio City Music Hall, 50th Street at Avenue of the Americas
Tickets and Current Performance Schedule: Ticketmaster