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

So many Cirques


The celebrated Montreal-based circus re-inventors Cirque du Soleil currently has five shows in Vegas (with two more on the way — one, an Elvis-themed show, the other built around magician Criss Angel).

The only Cirque show I missed this trip was Mystere, the first one (at Treasure Island), but I saw it years ago when I said I’d never be back in Vegas.

Mystere is probably the most similar to the touring shows we see here in the Bay Area. It’s a basic Cirque experience, but the company has expanded its horizons with each successive production.

Still the best all-around show is O (above) continues to be a transcendent experience. The theme is water, and the stage is a 1.5 million-gallon pool with the ability to create a dry stage or a pool deep enough for high-divers to make your heart stop when they leap from their lofty perch.

Nearly 10 years old, O is not showing its age at all and is, in fact, the most graceful and transporting show on the Strip.

The other big Cirque show is Love, which opened earlier this year amid great hoopla. Instead of the weird, New Age-y pop music found in most Cirque shows, this one uses a soundtrack by a rock quartet from Liverpool.

If you’re going to break tradition by using recordings instead of a live band, it’s probably a good thing your band is the Beatles.

It’s also a good thing to get original Beatles producer Sir George Martin and his son Gilles to come in with bounteous material from the Beatles vaults and then remaster, remix and just generally fiddle with the original recordings.

The result is a captivating sound montage that incorporates 29 Beatles tunes almost in their entirety along with bits and pieces of dozens more combined with dialogue by John, Paul, George and Ringo from recording sessions, movies and a variety of sources.

The show — at the Mirage, where Siegfried and Roy used to be before Roy was nearly killed by a tiger — has been described by its creators as a visual rock ‘n’ roll poem, and that’s exactly what it is.

Images of the ’60s, both groovy and violent, get a surreal twist as we tumble through the Beatles songbook played through a sound system that has been designed to make us feel like we’re actually inside the songs.

Two speakers in each seat’s headrest combined with a surround-sound speaker in front of each seat create a very personal sound bubble, and it would almost be worth the ticket price ($69-$150) just to sit and listen to the soundtrack in the dark.

But this is more than an incredible aural experience. Even though you’ll probably remember the songs more than the images, creators Guy Laliberte, Dominic Champagne, Gilles Ste-Croix and Chantal Tremblay have outdone themselves crafting a dazzling blend of dancing, video projections and circus acrobatics.

“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” gets a fairly literal translation, with ladies soaring over the theater (a complete 360-degree space) with strings of lights creating a trippy version of deep space.

“Blackbird” uses the two permanent video screens (attached to the wall) and the four moving screens to project images of white blackbirds against a blue sky.

The best circus stunt — the acts here feel less showy and more like fancy choreography than in other Cirque shows — comes during “Revolution”/“Back in the USSR” as hippies and gas-mask-wearing policemen use trampolines to leap over a giant British phone booth.

For those of us not on drugs, the trippy “Octopus’s Garden” number, complete with outlandish creatures from the fictional deep, sure makes us feel otherworldly.

Equally mind-bending are the two enormous, wraith-like paper puppets that soar through “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

My favorite moment of the show isn’t musical. Shadow figures of the Beatles appear projected on an almost invisible curtain. On the ground at the lads’ feet is the famous Abbey Road crosswalk. The dialogue — patched together from various audio sources — is like a comedy routine from the quartet, ending in the crossing of the street made famous on the “Abbey Road” album cover.

Of course the evening ends with “All You Need Is Love,” and if you need a surefire show in Vegas and have already seen O, all you need is Love.

The most troubled Cirque show in Vegas is Zumanity at the New York-New York hotel and casino. The company was charged with creating an adult show that really pushed the envelope of Vegas shows. So that’s what it delivered, but it was apparently too much. Apparently as many people walked out of the Zumanity as stayed, so changes were made, and it was altered.

Based on what I saw, I’m not sure I’d want to see the really dirty version. This is an enjoyably adult show that, though it has certain Cirque trademarks, is a very different experience.

There’s nudity, foul language, same-sex kissing, pretend S&M, a chaste orgy (complete with two audience volunteers) and two really terrific clowns: Shannan Calcutt and Nicky Dewhurst (above) as a freewheeling couple who do funny things with sex toys, bananas and audience members. Calcutt also does a solo bit involving her bare chest, two plastic bags and a bottle of scotch. I can’t really tell you more, but it’s hilarious, and she’s a treasure.

Cirque’s Ka at the MGM Grand was supposed to be the show that redefined the company. This one had a story (in the folksy, fantasy Lord of the Rings realm) and an extraordinary stage that seemingly existed outside the bounds of gravity.

The show is technically extraordinary, and just being in the theater (beautifully themed to look like an otherworldly oil rig or something equally as mechanical and complex) is exciting.
The story, told without words (except for some ponderous opening narration), is reasonably interesting, though many in the critics’ group found it difficult to follow.

I enjoyed Ka, though I would say it falls behind O and Love and, for sheer entertainment value, even Zumanity, which is sort of perceived to be the unloved Cirque stepchild.

Next post: Broadway West? Reviewing Las Vegas’ Phantom, Spamalot and The Producers, not to mention some well-aged Vegas cheese, Jubilee.