Cirque du Soleil has made a reputation for itself - if not an actual empire - by reinventing the circus. Gone are the elephants, the lion tamers, and the clowns with white-face and big floppy shoes. In their place are artistry and stagecraft. Cirque du Soleil provides high-end circus entertainment, with international casts of performers in richly designed and choreographed shows that verge on the theatrical.
Given its pedigree, I had expected to be somewhat impressed by Varekai, the latest offering from Cirque du Soleil. But while I had anticipated being moved by its blend of artistry and circus acts, I was totally unprepared to be blown away by its final act, a set of "Russian Swing Acrobats" whose act sent artistry out the window and dropped jaws with pure amazing stunts. Truth be told, they missed a couple of landings, but that didn't detract one whit. When you're aiming for the impossible, a ninety percent success rate is still pretty darned impressive.
But the Russian Swing Acrobats underline a point that sometimes gets lost when thinking about Cirque du Soleil: all the theatrical trappings that are the company's trademark are not there to make up for any lack in quality in the circus acts themselves. The backbone of Varekai is a company of acrobats and aerial artists that would knock socks off in any circumstances.
This is not to say Varekai doesn't have its share of acts that straddle the line between artistry and acrobatics. The show's opening act, "The Flight of Icarus," is an aerial act performed by a man suspended not from a trapeze or strap, but a net. The use of the net is stunning in its beauty and touching in its symbolism; the net traps the man, but also gives him support and a degree of freedom. While the precise meaning of the act is likely lost on a good portion of the audience (if you don't pay for a program, you don't know the act's title and will likely conclude from the wings the man originally wore that he is portraying a bird, not Icarus), the emotional content of the man swinging in his net is undeniable. Varekai's creative team wisely puts this character at the center of the show. He wordlessly creates a bond with the audience, and our hearts cry out for him to successfully find whatever he is seeking.
Beginning with Icarus's descent (after a prologue that might well be the best "cell phone speech" in the history of theatre), Varekai introduces circus acts in the context of a plot that is somehow affecting despite being at times unclear. During an act of "Crutch Dancing," the artists create an image where crutches are paralleled by wings. The contextual meaning is unclear (exactly what is the crutch dancer supposed to represent?) but the simple idea that crutches are, for some, like wings is deeply moving. Much of Varekai works in this way. Sometimes, it feels as though there is something going on that you're just not getting, but then you realize it is working on your heart and mind in a fundamental way that bypasses the need for strict comprehension.
Mention should also be made of Varekai's clown act, a completely accessible and genuinely funny performance, plotted around an egotistical and incompetent magician. He comes back later in the show for an encore as an equally egotistical lounge singer in a routine whose simple concept is perfectly executed. The laughs in the show do not belong solely to the clown act - I hadn't thought lightbulb jokes could still be funny, but Varekai manages to take these to another level as well.
The overall imagery of Varekai is bright and colorful, but in a sense that is more reminiscent of The Lion King than Ringling Brothers. Costumes suggest fantastical animals. The set, a series of close-knit wooden poles (on which the animals sometimes perch), feels like a forest, although there are no actual leaves in sight. It is a friendly, cheerful environment for the action to take place.
Varekai has all the makings of an extremely successful Cirque du Soleil show: amazingly talented acrobats, some moments of emotional artistry, and a dash of comedy, all wrapped up in a brightly colored package under a blue and yellow tent.
Cirque du Soleil presents Varekai. Guy Laliberté, founder; Dominic Champagne, Director; Andrew Watson, Director of Creation; Stéphane Roy, Set Designer; Eiko Ishioka, Costume Designer; Violaine Carradi, Composer; Michael Montanaro, Choreographer; Bill Shannon, Choreographer; Jaque Paquin, Rigging Designer; Nol van Genuchten, Lighting Designer; François Bergeron, Sound Designer; Francis Laporte, Projections Designer; Cal McCrystal, Clown Acts Designer; André Simard, Aerial Acts Designer; Nathalie Gagné, Makeup Designer. Varekai continues at Staples Center Parking Lot #2 through November 16, 2003. For tickets, call (800) 678-5440, or see www.cirquedusoleil.com.