Enthooza for `Kooza’

Opened Friday, Nov. 16, 2007 in San Francisco

Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza thrills more than chills
Three stars Killer `Wheel of Death’

I can be a jerk about Cirque — I fell out of love with Cirque du Soleil, even though I wanted our affair to continue. I suppose it’s all a matter of over-exposure to a good thing, and judging from the response to my whining about this fancy-pants Canadian circus troupe, some of y’all feel the same way.

Well, having paid a visit to the blue-and-white-striped tent behind AT&T Park on Friday to see Cirque’s latest touring show, Kooza, I have to say: It’s pretty thrilling and mostly unfussy.

It’s also kinda long — with a 30-minute intermission (one has to shop for trinkets, mais bien sur) we were out of the tent at five to 11 — and there are definite slow spots. Even though director David Shiner is an expert clown, the clowning in Kooza left me cold. I liked that the clowns spoke, and spoke in English, but their routines, especially the audience-participation bits, ran long and wore out their welcome.

But there are two clowns whose mission is not laughter but “atmosphere” and “tone.” Jason Berrent (below in the vertical stripes) is The Trickster, a wily presence in stripes who seems to orchestrate things with a high-voltage wand. Berrent is incredibly lithe and graceful (his entrance out of a giant jack-in-the-box is extraordinary), and though he’s silent, he’s a powerful presence. His co-star is Stephane Landry (below in the horizontal stripes) as The Innocent, a childlike kite-flyer who is lured into The Trickster’s snare.

The stage (designed by Stephane Roy) is spacious and gorgeous. Giant swaths of fabric move up and down — sort of a breathing curtain — to conceal and expose a central three-tiered gazebo. The lower level contains a traditional theatrical red curtain, the middle level contains the band (fantastic! but more on them in a moment) and the top level is often a perch for clowns.

Over the years I have grown indifferent to the Cirque musical approach. I used to dutifully buy the CDs and zone out to their trippy blend of New Age-worldly wise sounds. After a while, it all sounded the same. Kooza actually sounds quite different, and the thing that sets apart Jean-Francois Cote’s score is a big, fat, brilliantly bold horn section. To have trumpets and saxophones and trombones cutting through the cuteness does wonders. Sometimes there’s an Indian Bollywood feel to the music, other times it’s 1950s movie soundtrack, then it’s jazz, then it’s (and this is my favorite) Earth, Wind and Fire. Loved the music and will buy the CD (or download it — hey, it’s the 21st century).

Highlights of the circus acts:

– The crowd loved the three lady contortionists (Julie Bergez, Natasha Patterson and Dasha Sovik), who are clearly among the best at what they do, but they grossed me out — one girl actually runs around her head! — and I thought that when they were all doubled over, they looked like a giant shrimp cocktail.

Darya Vintilova’s solo trapeze bit, which looks like a whole lot of fun and about as close as a human can get to actually flying, benefits from a pusling rock ‘n’ roll underscore.

Anthony Gatto and Danielle Gatto’s juggling — very Las Vegas with his silver lame jumpsuit and red-feather skirt — is old-fashioned and delightfully cheesy, but Anthony is such a skilled juggler, the cheese melts away and you’re left awed.

– The highwire act by the Dominguez family (with Flouber Sanchez, who is likely an honorary Dominguez), is also exciting. For much of the act there’s no net, and they’re not hooked to safety wires.

– The best act of the night is by far the “Wheel of Death” (pictured at the top of the review) Performed by Jimmy Ibarra Zapata and Carlos Enrique Marin Loaiza, the act involves what looks like a giant propeller, and at each end of the spinning arm is a round cage big enough for a man to run around in or on top of. I don’t often gasp or hide my eyes at circus stunts, but this one made me flinch and shriek like a little girl at a prize fight. Extraordinary.

As usual, the costumes (by Marie-Chantalle Vaillancourt) are gorgeous, and the lighting (by Martin Labrecque) couldn’t be any sharper.

It’s an exciting night under the big top — one that gives me a little more faith in Cirque du Soleil’s ability to keep jaded audience members such as myself coming back for more.

For information on Cirque, which has been extended in San Francisco through Jan. 20, visit www.cirquedusoleil.com.

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 www.cirquedusoleil.com.