Near the beginning of Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza, a large number of grinning men and women in festive, ambiguously ethnic dress come hopping out with their arms spread wide, performing flips and pirouettes as a multitiered bandshell rolls forward. Brass blares, drums thump, and lights flash wildly as a shapely singer winds her hips and sings ecstatic praises in nonsense syllables. It’s a convincing dramatization of the reception President Bush expected American troops to receive when they arrived in Baghdad.
The Cirqular players are camped out in Lowertown until August 2. They’re in a tent, but it’s not exactly rustic living—the compound arrived on 55 tractor trailers and took 200 workers a week to erect. I’m not sure what “Pig’s Eye” Parrant would have made of all the waxed chests and sequins, but he would surely have admired the commercial savvy of the enterprise: the tickets, with the best seats going for over $200 each, are only the tip of an iceberg that includes merchandise, food, and even parking. (As of the Thursday night preview performance, the lot immediately across the street was still charging $1.50 while cars lined up to enter the Cirque space for $10. Must have been Minneapolitans who thought they were getting a bargain.)
Cirque du Soleil, a Montreal empire that could power the entire national economy if Quebec were to secede—and with 4,000 exceptionally agile employees, probably serve as the national army to boot—was founded in 1984. Even though Kooza is much newer than that, its sound and style are a throwback to those halcyon days of glitzy excess. It was around that time that David Bowie’s wife found her husband naked in bed with Mick Jagger, and if you throw in Grace Jones, Enya, Gloria Estefan, the family dog, and the entire cast of Michael Jackson’s Captain Eo, and then imagine the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne jumping into bed, farting, and pulling the covers over everyone’s head, you’ll begin to have some idea of what you’re in for with Kooza.
There’s less a plot then a scenario, a combination of The Nutcracker and the Velvet Underground’s “The Gift.” A sly clown jumps out of a box delivered to “The Innocent”—a doofus in Seussian striped pajamas—and takes him on a journey past a parade of characters pulling off some seriously crazy stunts. This all has deep meaning, if you believe the program notes (“Between strength and fragility, laughter and smiles, turmoil and harmony, Kooza explores themes of fear, identity, recognition, and power”), but you may need to see the show a few dozen times to discern all the allegorical nuances. If you prefer to refinance your house only once to purchase tickets, though, you can still enjoy the crazy stunts.
And they are indeed crazy—often, astonishing. The acrobatics include some standbys such as trapeze and high wire acts, but there are also tricks you’ve never seen anything like (unless, maybe, you’re a member of the Cirque Club). Balancing on a dozen stacked chairs? Wow. Spinning an acrobat while riding a unicycle? Not bad. Being catapulted into the air, performing multiple flips, and landing upright—on stilts? Holy shit. Most novel, and most exciting, is the “Wheel of Death,” a device that looks like two hamster wheels on either end of a 40-foot spinning rod; men ride the wheel and perform hair-raising jumps as it rotates so quickly that the audience can feel the wind. As we say in Minnesota, it’s quite the deal.
To heighten the thrills, the Koozicians perform unremarkable—but remarkably loud—prog-rock with lyrics that, seemingly by design, veer in and out of intelligibility. (My favorite was the soulful number accompanying the chair-stacking, where Bonnie-Tyleresque phrases like “he’s so brave” alternate with gibberish that sounds like something you’d hear from Jabba the Hutt’s torch singer.) Unfortunately, in all their ponderous thunder the players fail to drown out the three clowns who perform for excruciatingly long periods, trafficking in humor that takes the lowest common denominator and makes it an offer it can’t refuse. Call me old-fashioned, but the Kooza clowns made me appreciate the subtle artistry of Bozo, a clown who managed to make people laugh without ever once faking masturbation.
The open secret of Cirque du Soleil is that behind all that heavy makeup and mad merchandising, what makes the show so compelling is very simple and human: the extraordinary dedication and focus on display. You can’t pay someone enough to put in the lifetime of work it takes to achieve that level of skill, and it’s clear that the performers live for the gasps and guffaws of a live audience. See Kooza if you can afford to (and if you can live with the fact that the money you spent on that Catégorie Prestige ticket could have vaccinated an entire sub-Saharan village against meningitis); you won’t be disappointed.
The starry-eyed audience I saw Kooza with certainly seemed more than satisfied. At the conclusion of the half-hour break (the only intermission in town long enough for you to stretch your legs, have a smoke, go to the bathroom, and have a drink), a middle-aged guy in a polo shirt edged past me on his way back to his seat, his grey mustache flecked with ice cream from the Klondike bar he was eating. We made eye contact, and he spontaneously decided to share his reaction to the show. “What a rush, huh?!”
Jay Gabler (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.
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