There are two ways to look at Cirque du Soleil's Varekai, currently playing under the "Grand Chapiteau" (Big Top) at St. Petersburg's Tropicana Field.
To begin with, there's the first-timer's view. From this perspective, Varekai is gorgeously colorful, occasionally amazing and bizarre, unpredictable and entirely unlike anything else in the world. Seeing your first Cirque du Soleil production, you might reasonably assume that you're having the full experience, that you understand now what the shouting's all about. And if there are patches during which you aren't wholly entertained; if, say, the interludes featuring Steven Bishop the clown are relatively weak, or if the Chinese child acrobat/jugglers don't quite astonish, it still feels churlish to complain. You've had your first experience of something utterly unique, and you're dazed and grateful.
Then there's the old hand's approach. This involves those who were present two years ago at the mind-boggling Quidam, or last year at the impressive Allegría. From this perspective, Varekai is only semi-tough. Yes, there are a few of the incredible feats that prior experience had led you to expect, and yes, there are some moments of dizzyingly busy acrobatics set to exhilarating music.
But Varekai is no Quidam; it doesn't have the hallucinatory quality, the demonic overtones that made you feel like you were at a carnival in hell. In Quidam it seemed that every act was building on the last and that there was no feat so impossible that these grotesque, otherworldly athletes, acrobats and contortionists wouldn't perform. Varekai feels eclectic: It's hard to understand what relates one segment to the next, and the level of intensity rises and falls without logic.
Two years after Quidam, I still don't know what hit me; but a few days after Varekai I was pretty much over it. Of course, I'd been spoiled. What could compare with Quidam? Ultimately, it appears that not all Cirque shows are equal.
There's a story line this time, as there was with Quidam. A winged Icarus figure (Anton Chelnokov) all in white plummets to earth; he loses his wings and the use of his legs. The creatures among whom he falls are strange and frightening, but he has to contend with them if he's to regain his original powers.
Sometimes we see him striving to walk (or fly) again; at other times he's merely a witness, along with us, to the odd pastimes of his new community: juggling and acrobatics and dancing and magic. During these exercises — that is, during most of the show — poor Icarus isn't really on our minds, and the climax of his story seems perfunctory at best. But even if his tale is fundamentally unnecessary, it at least helps frame the series of acts that comprises most of Varekai. And a few of these acts are genuinely thrilling.
Among the best: acrobats who balance on the upraised feet of other acrobats, fly and flip through the air and land again on their partners' feet; four women (Helen Ball, Polina Lymareva, Sophie Oldfield and Michele Ramos) clad in blue and green who create difficult and beautiful configurations on a single trapeze. There's a juggler (Octavio Alegria) who bounces and juggles balls and straw hats with astonishing success, and there's a woman (Irina Naumenko) who contorts her body in impossible ways while balancing on her hands.
Then there's the finale (the best thing in the show) called "Russian Swings" in which 13 performers sail between bizarre swinging contraptions and into enormous white sheets. And it's all performed to live music by an extraordinarily talented seven-piece band.
Among the least interesting, or maybe I should say, least awe-inspiring segments: the three Chinese children (Chen Haiyan, Kuai Wenxiang and Zhang Yudong) who throw ropes weighted at either end with bowls up into the air, do somersaults and then catch the falling objects; the clown (Steven Bishop) who tries to disappear but keeps getting caught in flagrante delicto, and who later does a cheap Jacques Brel impersonation while trying to keep up with an errant spotlight; and three men in red (Badri Esatia, Temur Koridze and Khvicha Tetvadze) who dance and twirl in the air with fine but oh-so-thinkable precision (anything less than the impossible seems second-rate where Cirque is concerned).
There's also an act featuring Jayko Eloi on crutches that fits with the Icarus story but seems too simple for ambitious Cirque. And there's a character with a light bulb sticking out of his hat who never really comes to matter.
What matters a great deal in any Cirque show is costuming: I can't think of any other production which offers as much variety, grotesquerie, color and outrageousness, from the human lizard outfits at the show's beginning to the spiked heads at show's end.
The designer of these outfits, some of them dreamlike, many of them nightmarish, is Eiko Ishioka — an artist Carl Jung would surely appreciate. Directing the show is Dominic Champagne, and composing the haunting music is Violaine Corradi. And oh yes, "Varekai" means "wherever" in the Romany language of the Gypsies. Maybe that's supposed to be the locale of Icarus' fall.
Which brings me to a recommendation. Having seen three Cirque shows in the last three years, I count myself a fan. And as a fan, I'd like to see a Cirque show that really does make sense from first to last, in which the frame story somehow necessitates the various acts, and in which only the most awesome performances take the stage.
This almost defines 2002's Quidam, but even in Quidam the narrative trailed off into unimportance. I guess I'm talking about a super-Cirque — and that's almost a redundancy. But I've seen the superlative, and I want the sublime. I want a Cirque that I won't forget for a decade.
Varekai is too inconsistent for an old hand like me.
But if, on the other hand, you've never been to Cirque du Soleil ... Well, maybe it's time you began your education.
Shakespeare Goes Indoors. It's too early to tell the real significance of American Stage's recent decision to move Shakespeare in the Park out of the Park and onto the mainstage. Similarly, artistic director Todd Olson's announcement that from now on musicals will play outdoors at Demens Landing doesn't yet have a specifiable meaning.
Some questions: Will American Stage indeed continue bringing us Shakespeare every spring, or will a few years of falling attendance put an end to it? Will the people who paid a few bucks to sit on blankets and watch Taming of the Shrew pay a full ticket price for Richard III? What does the choice of putting musicals in the Park mean about American Stage's commitment to serious theater?
The company's 2005-2006 season features several less-than-important offerings (Dial M for Murder, Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks); does this reflect a shift in programming standards? Will audience surveys like the one that led to the Shakespeare change eventually produce a more commercial, less daring, American Stage?
We'll be watching.