Circus Review: Kooza
San Francisco, November 19 at 4 p.m. $55.00 to $210.00 top.
To follow the phenomenal success of Cirque du Soleil is to wonder how long it can last and what changes it might be willing to make in the years ahead to stay in the black. The good news here is that Kooza, Guy Laliberte’s latest touring show, takes a few giant leaps backwards in time to a more authentic big top experience. May we say goodbye for good, Corteo? I can’t recall a previous edition of Cirque as powerful as this one is in its redemptive second half.
Getting there takes a little time and patience. The gorgeous tent itself remains a temple of heightened atmosphere and mystery. During come-in, a delightfully wacky trio of older fashioned character clowns (stress character) led by Canadian Gordon White are fun to watch. They will specialize at extended intervals throughout the program in a line of slapstick and toilet humor that can seem as much filler as worthy comedic invention. And their ring time adds to the impression of a variety show with circus acts rather than a cirque du ballet. This comes as something of a promising relief.
Cirque’s stated aim in this newest touring unit (no proper Cirque will dare leave home without one) has something to do with The Innocent, a “naive but charming clown striving to find his place in the world” and the exploration of “fear, identity, recognition and power.” I read that in the program, but from the show itself, what I remember the most were a handful of gifted performers who thrilled me — as they obviously they did everybody else in the near-full house — doing things that trump all such pretentious rhetoric.
The opening segments bear familiar Cirque markings --- misty allusions to another world being reached, ensemble choreography, the use of mechanics and the sketchy maneuvers of those who use them (rolling globes and a single trap aerialist). And you wonder, has nothing much changed in the Montreal mind set? A couple of acts ahead, it most certainly has. Enter a troupe of high wire daredevils who break through the veneer with dashing realism, working on two wires, one above the other. They are from Columbia and Spain — Flouber Sanchez (Pinpon) and the brothers Dominguez — Roberto Quiros, Angel Quiros, Vicente Quiros and Angel Villarejo. Together, they generate real excitement dancing and cavorting aloft. A net is efficiently extended below them, and that’s the commendable way to add safety. Our wire walkers proceed with balancing poles to execute a perfect three-man pyramid on two bicycles. Thus, they deliver Cirque du Soleil from its chronic deference to hard hats and practice mechanics. Can Laliberte break the habit? Evidently so. I told you there is good news here.
Really, to be honest, up until the wire guys come on just before intermission, not a lot has happened. And I found myself wondering, will that be all that there is to be?
Then came the second half, delivering a pair of absolutely sensational history-making performances, one a drop-dead thriller in the air, the other, a riveting display of juggling genius the likes of which you have probably never before seen. Go there to see it.
The thriller: Two guys from Colombia (Is Colombia becoming the world center of circus thrills?) named Jimmy Ibarra Zapata and Carlos Enrique Marin Loaiza who work a double wheel of death in the most recklessly accomplished fashion. I have never ever seen this rig exploited so dangerously and with such gut-grabbing bravado. Zapata and Loaiza are outrageously daring. Stars. Stars. Stars. May I repeat their names — Zapata and Loaiza. They had the crowd gasping like roller coaster fanatics. Remember the word spine-tingling? Here it applies.
Second highpoint worth a trip to this tent: A juggler so incredibly accomplished, powering through a repertoire of tricks and not making a single error, as to leave me wondering in joy: is he the greatest I have seen since I first beheld the great Francis Brunn many years ago in my boyhood? He probably is. Mesmerizing through and through. Monte Carlo should just send him the gold, no questions asked, no appearances necessary. Who is he? Of course, he is not announced, and in the program where every artist gets the same tiny space for a mug shot (shame on you, Cirque, for such miserly credit-giving), I learn that I have just witnessed the work of Anthony Gatto. Star. Star. Star.
These breath taking turns are what give the otherwise meandering Kooza an edge and a purpose. There are a number of other artists, to be sure, who demonstrate agility and polish and add a degree of pleasure to the mix: a group of intrepidly nimble contortionists; an acrobatic duo of persuasive agility; another pair who ride a bicycle inventively, combining romantic flirtations with nimble acrobatics; a guy from Sweden of all places named Michael Halvarson who mines comedy magic with a sly pick-pocketing turn using a shill from the crowd. All nice enough stuff.
Overall, however, curiously Kooza suffers from the uneasy convergence of dispirit forces competing for attention — the star circus acts who will not be reduced to stick figures in a Cirque mist; the bickering clowns who consume too much ring time, some of it courtesy of audience volunteers (who, for all I know, could be shills); the so-called “story,” and Cirque’s lingering compulsion to produce its signature atmosphere. Director-writer David Shiner has not succeed in merging these elements into an embracing aesthetic unity. In this department, Kooza is no match for the memorable Varakei, so the audience must settle for a pleasant ersatz Vegas variety format.
Shiner's writerly vision lacks rhythm, and the production lacks pacing and sharper transitions. Given Cirque’s unlimited resources, prop changes that take time should not. The narrative premise is realized in fits and starts, although the plight of The Innocent is charmingly essayed by Stephan Landry who rings a little pathos in the end when he is left alone with only his kite after the circus gypsies have disappeared into a dark mist of closure.
Music follows action faithfully, which means that we get many different sounds and styles from ethnic to jazz, yet most of it relevant and engaging and a welcome change from the operatic scores of the past.
My biggest complaint is as much a wish: There could and should have been more content here. A couple of the acts listed in the program — a duo single trap turn and the outstanding Chinese chair balancer, Zhang Congli — did not appear that day; perhaps they would have done the trick. Cirque’s billionaire big top boss has all the money he needs, and still he uses sponsors. And now he has eliminated the free water stations on the lot. The impression he conveys is of a filthy rich producer with a serious greed problem. Not a pretty impression.
At least Mr. Laliberte has shown a stomach for the authentic artistry that thrills a house time and time again. And he may have no other choice in order to stay in business but to give the public the circus it expects — no matter the format, no matter the dry ice formula.
Overall Grade: ***