Last Friday night, as my companion and I strolled through the South of Market on our way to opening night of Kooza, I caught a glimpse of Cirque du Soleil's mammoth blue and yellow "Grand Chapiteau" (big top) in the parking lot of A.T.&T. Park, and I found myself feeling a bit nostalgic. I remembered so vividly seeing my first Cirque touring production -- Quidam -- about ten years ago, and being so absolutely astounded by the thrilling athleticism and exquisite artistry of the performers, the unparalleled creativity of the choreographers and designers, and the sheer ingenuity of the production team (who pack a monster of a show into a fleet of trucks every six weeks or so), that I immediately ran out and bought tickets for my entire family for Christmas.
Since then, I've seen and loved numerous other Cirque tours, as well as their decadent Las Vegas productions. I've got the Cirque website bookmarked and I'm in their e-mail club. As hard as I try to resist, I almost always end up purchasing a shopping bag full of [ridiculously overpriced] merchandise every time I attend a production. Much to the chagrin of my theatre-snob friends, I've become somewhat of a "Cirque-head."
And so, I wonder if it's because I'm so well-acquainted with this brilliant company's work that I walked away from Kooza feeling a little underwhelmed. Don't get me wrong, it's a gorgeous show, and the performers are fabulously gifted athletes who absolutely deserved the enthusiastic standing ovation received on opening night. But, Kooza, which is making its U.S. premiere here in San Francisco, just doesn't feel as aesthetically consistent or as tightly executed as other Cirque productions I've seen over the last decade.
The title of the show, inspired by the Sanskrit word "koza" which means "box" or "treasure," is a nod to the concept of the production as a "circus in a box." The show's writer and director David Shiner, who began his career as a street mime in Paris before becoming one of Cirque's most revered clowns, envisioned Kooza as a return to the origins of Cirque du Soleil, combining acrobatic performance and the art of clowning. Indeed Kooza is by design the most "circus-y" of all the Cirque productions, with a line-up of slapstick clowns, high-wire artists and acrobats not unlike those found at a Ringling Brothers show.
The fabulously ornate set by Stephane Roy, was conceived to resemble a public square that morphs into a circus ring, and features a massive traveling tower and layers of sheer tapestries which unfold like a giant origami sculpture. At the same time, according to press materials, "there has been no attempt to conceal or disguise the acrobatic equipment... Everything is done out in the open with simplicity and transparency in order to concentrate the audience's attention on the artists and acrobatic performances." OK, fair enough; I just found it a little difficult at times to concentrate on the performers, when stagehands were clearly having a few technical difficulties with enormous props and safety equipment (which is thankfully incorporated on the more daring acts).
As with all Cirque productions, Kooza features a dazzling array of gloriously ornate costumes, these by designer Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt, but the "look" of the production feels uneven, if not contradictory. While Act I features glistening acrobats in Indian-inspired, vaguely Wizard of Oz-esque attire and contortionists in sleek metallic bodysuits in vibrant shades of red and orange, Act II opens with a lavish black and white Vegas-celebrates-Halloween production number, complete with whimsical skeleton costumes and showgirls in elaborate feather headpieces and high heels. Still, when taken act by act, few theatrical companies in the world can create a tableaux as beautiful and compelling as the Cirque team, particularly when accompanied by the quirky music of Jean-Francois Cote and spectacular lighting by Martin Labrecque.
And of course, the extraordinary talent, uncompromised training and sheer bravery of every performer on stage can't be overstated. A chiseled gymnast catapults high over the stage and into the arms of his comrades, a trio of waif-like contortionists bend their spines into a freakish variety of silhouettes, a muscular unicyclist wheels his way around the stage while lifting and twisting his partner around his neck like a well-worn scarf, a juggler effortlessly manipulates a mind-boggling assortment of props. Although there are no "stars" in Cirque productions, two daring young men stand out as this production's biggest crowd-pleasers, leaping through, around and on top of a colossal, rotating steel contraption appropriately called the "Wheel of Death," eliciting numerous rounds of gasps and screams from the audience.
While Kooza may not be as artistically innovative or as finely tuned as other Cirque productions, it's still an enormously enjoyable show, and a great option for family entertainment during the otherwise bland holiday theatrical season.
Cirque du Soleil's Kooza runs through Janury 20, 2008 in San Francisco and then moves to San Jose January 31 - March 2, 2008. Purchase tickets for San Francisco and San Jose performances (at cirquedusoleil.com).