Still crazy for Cirque’s Koozå

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ABOVE: The astonishing “Wheel of Death” act in Cirque du Soleil’s Koozå features Jimmy Ibarra Zapata and Angelo Lyezkysky Rodriguez. BELOW: Victor Levoshuk balances on a stack of chairs 23 feet high. Photos by Matt Beard & Bernard Letendre; costumes by Marie Chantale Vaillancourt. Cirque du Soleil 2022

Let’s be honest about Cirque du Soleil: sometimes the world’s most popular circus is captivating, enchanting and everything you want a modern (non-animal) circus to be. Other times, the experience can be flat, uninvolving and/or pretentious. Happily, one of their best shows in recent memory, Koozå (written and directed by David Shiner, who has roots in the Bay Area circus scene), is still running and is back under the big top at Oracle Park in San Francisco.

I first reviewed Koozå in November 2007, about six months after its premiere, and everything I loved about the show then is still very much part of the experience. (Read my review here) The Act 2 showstopper, “The Wheel of Death,” is still among the most thrilling acrobatic performances I’ve ever seen. Jimmy Ibarra Zapata and Angelo Lyezkysky Rodriguez ride a giant, suspended contraption that spins like a propeller and has a stationary ring at either end that the acrobats flip inside of and on top of in the most alarming ways.

Another highlight comes in Act 2 with Victor Levoshuk’s balancing act on an ever-growing stack of chairs. He reaches a height of 23 feet, and though he’s tethered for safety, his display of strength and grace is remarkable.


Director/writer Shiner’s greatest accomplishment with Koozå is how light and charming it feels. The clowns are (mostly) not obnoxious, and at Wednesday’s opening night show, the audience interaction with a game guy named Tim was stellar and quite funny. The live music (by Jean-François Côté) has an epic, cinematic sweep (and a kick-ass horn section) but also isn’t afraid to get funky. It’s especially satisfying that drummer Eden Bahar gets a moment in the spotlight after his stunning work during the “Wheel of Death” routine.

The costumes by Marie Chantale Vaillancourt have the usual bedazzled leotard look, but she gets to have a lot of fun with the “Skeleton Dance” dance number that feels like a mash-up of the Day of the Dead and an old Vegas showgirl revue.

Other enjoyable acts in Koozå include a trio of contortionists (Sunderiya Jargalsaikhan, Ninjin Altankhuyag, Sender Enkhtur) who seem to defy ordinary rules of human biology (like having internal organs or bones); a highwire act that really gets exciting when they pull out the little bicycles; and a hipster hoopster (Aruna Bataa) who could make a case for glittery hula-hoops as couture.

One note about San Francisco’s busy Mission Bay. If you think it’s going to be easy to park down there, think again. Give yourself plenty of time and make a plan (like take Muni or ride share). It seems like new buildings pop up in what used to be parking lots every day. And double check to see if there’s a Warriors game at the Chase Center (like there was on Wednesday night). On such nights, traffic and parking can be their own San Francisco version of the “Wheel of Death.”

Cirque du Soleil’s Koozå continues through March 17 under the big top at Oracle Park in San Francisco. Tickets start at $39. Running time is just over two hours (including a 25-minute intermission). Visit The show moves to San Jose April 18-May 26.

Irwin and Shiner: Old Hats are the best hats

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Bill Irwin (left), singer/songwriter Shaina Taub (center) and David Shiner light up the Geary Theater in the Signature Theatre production of Old Hats, the season opener for American Conservatory Theater. Below: Shiner and Irwin have a classic clown encounter. Photos by Kevin Berne.

I will be the first to admit that clowns have never been a favorite of mine. Not circus clowns, not hobo clowns, not mimes, not even a lot of commedia dell’arte rigamarole. Occasionally, however, I get it – I get the comedy, I get the poignancy, I get the masterful balance of comedy and tragedy in the pursuit of laughs.

And by far my favorite clowns – the ones who do it better than just about anybody – are Bill Irwin and David Shiner. Their Full Moon was a revelation both times it was at American Conservatory Theater, and because of that, I expected great things from their latest collaboration, Old Hats, a production of New York’s Signature Theatre that opens the ACT season.

Expectations are dangerous in the theater, but I had them, and Irwin and Shiner more than delivered. This show is as funny and as sweet and as salty as the last one with the added bonus of having the wonderful Shaina Taub on hand to sing her songs and front a fantastic band.

I reviewed Old Hats for the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s a peek:

…now they’re back to open ACT’s season with a victory lap they like to call “Old Hats.” A hit last year for New York’s Signature Theatre, the show is two hours of gratifying laughter in the company of two masters who don’t seem to have aged a day in the 13 years since we last saw them perform together.
They may be flirting (or have flirted) with 60, but these clowns are ageless as long as they’re on stage wearing baggy pants, oversized coats and clown shoes (costumes and set design by G.W. Mercier). Whether they’re performing hat tricks, ribbing each other or performing a good, old-fashioned vaudeville dance, they do everything with a polish and precision that makes everything look natural and easy.

Read the full review here.

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Old Hats continues through Oct. 12 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$120. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

The `irk’ in Cirque

It could be that I have been burned by the Circus of the Sun.

Now, I fully realize there are worse things to suffer in life than weariness of Cirque du Soleil, the phenomenally successful new-age Canadian circus troupe. And I also realize that to be weary of Cirque means I’ve had the great good fortune to see a whole lot of Cirque shows.

The first Cirque show I saw, Alegria, remains my favorite; a common occurrence, I’ve come to learn, among Cirque fans is that your first time is usually your favorite time.

That initial experience really is magical. It’s the kind of experience you long for in any theatrical endeavor, be it Hamlet or Don Giovanni or Oklahoma! Soaking in the Cirque mystique — the gorgeous, colorful costumes, the rich, worldly music, the mysterious sense that somehow, somewhere the obscure “story” of the show actually makes sense — is tremendously transporting.

I left the Grand Chapiteau (even Cirque’s name for its blue-and-yellow-striped tent has pretensions) that first time thinking I had just seen the most brilliant thing ever.

I don’t usually like clowns, but I liked the clowns in Alegria (among them was Slava, who turned his wondrous bit in that show into an entire, and entirely awful, theatrical experience called Slava’s Snow Show).
And I found the music so intriguing I went out and bought the CD.

Color me a Cirque du Soleil fan circa 1995.

I’ve seen pretty much everything since, including all the permanent Las Vegas shows. Now we have the latest tour, Kooza, making its U.S. debut in San Francisco Friday (Nov. 16), where it continues through Jan. 13 before moving down to San Jose from Jan. 31 through March 2.

The arrival of a new Cirque used to set me all atwitter. Now, from my jaded, seen-it-all perspective, I shrug my shoulders, raise my eyebrows and mutter, “Maybe,” or if I’m feeling French-Canadian, “Peut-etre.”

The last Cirque show to come through the Bay Area, Corteo,” had its moments, but it also had some horrors (one Act 2 clown routine is probably the worst I’ve seen in a Cirque show).

The mega-Cirque shows in Vegas — Ka (the Cirque with an actual plot), Zumanity (the naughty “adult” Cirque), Love (the Beatles Cirque), Mystere (the one with the giant sea snail) and O (the one Cirque that maintains its magical hold year after year) — have a tendency to be mind-numbing simply because they’re so big, so multifaceted and so much the same.

Sure, they all have their themes and gimmicks, their beauty and their thrills. But it’s all essentially ladled from the same Soup du Soleil.

Does anybody really remember what differentiated Varekai from Dralion?

Now that I’ve whined about the pioneer of modern circus, let me share what interests me about Kooza. Two words: David Shiner.

Bay Area audiences know Shiner to be a master clown. Better yet, he’s a master bitter clown — belligerent, aggressive and hard-edged.

We have enjoyed his sour alongside Bill Irwin’s sweet in the brilliant clown show Fool Moon, which played the Geary Theater twice — in 1998 and 2001.

Shiner is the first American writer-director of a Cirque show, and he has said that Kooza, a made-up word inspired by “koza,” Sanskrit for “box, chest or treasure,” goes back to the origins of Cirque — back when Shiner was working on Nouvelle Experience in Cirque’s late ’80s-early ’90s days.

The show, Shiner says, is about “human connection and the world of duality, good and bad. The tone is fun and funny, light and open. The show doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it’s very much about ideas, too.”

That sounds promising. The emphasis seems to be on acrobatics and clowning and features a stunt called “Wheel of Death.” Hard to resist the lure of potential death at the highbrow circus.

Whatever it takes — I’m ready for the “irk” to be taken out of my Cirque du Soleil attitude.

Kooza continues through Jan. 13 (now extended through Jan. 20) in the tent in the parking lot behind AT&T Park, corner of Third Street and Terry A. Francois Boulevard, San Francisco. Shows are at 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; 4 and 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 1 and 5 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $38.50 to $81. Call 866-624-7783 or visit

Another Cirque in SF

The big yellow-and-blue-striped tent — the Grand Chapiteau — is heading back to the Bay Area.
Cirque du Soleil’s latest touring show, KOOZA, will have its U.S. premiere Nov. 16 in the parking lot behind San Francisco’s AT&T Park. The show then moves to San Jose Jan. 31.

You can never tell with the quirky Cirque, but this show sounds pretty straightforward — a return to a more traditional circus tradition of acrobats and clowns. The director is David Shiner, a clown well known to Bay Area audiences for his work with Bill Irwin in Fool Moon and for his performance in the early Cirque show Nouvelle Experience.

KOOZA, currently on tour in Canada, centers on a character called The Innocent, a “melancholy loner in search of his place in the world.” Creators promise “bold slapstick humor” as The Innocent encounters The Trickster, The Pickpocket and, most intriguingly, The Bad Dog.

Tickets are $55 to $90 and go on sale to Cirque Club members June 28 and to the rest of us in July.

Visit or call (800) 678-5440.