nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 16, 2009
It's disappointing to report that the things I remember most about my journey to Randall's Island to see Cirque du Soleil's latest extravaganza Kooza are: (1) the long wait (about 20 minutes) to get (overpriced) beverages and popcorn during intermission, and (2) the long walk (on a rutted gravel path that was inadequately lit) from the circus tent to the dock to catch the water taxi back to Manhattan. I've never been to a Cirque du Soleil show before, but my expectation of a sophisticated, classy, magical experience was entirely circumvented by the cheap and careless ambience that awaited me.
Nor, alas, did the show itself do much to alter my now-amended perspective. Kooza is an awkward amalgamation of good-to-spectacular acrobatic/aerialist acts and coarse, un-funny clowning. The latter element surprised me, as much for its incongruity amongst the pretense to elegance that otherwise characterizes the piece as for the fact that the production's writer/director is David Shiner, a man whose work on Broadway in Fool Moon has pegged him as a master clown of the highest order. The show is also much too long: it was nearly 11 o'clock when the curtain call started, and a whole bunch of folks—undoubtedly worried about babysitters and parking charges and getting up for work the next day—had bolted for the exit before my companions and I made it there.
There's a framing device, as shows of this sort almost always seem to have, involving an Innocent trying to fly his kite. He's met by some sort of fairy godfather-ish sort of figure (called "Trickster" in the show rundown that I received from the publicist) who invites him to explore the Wonderful World of Imagination of Cirque. Somehow after witnessing the feats of contortionists, jugglers, high-wire acrobats, and so on, our Innocent is able to make his kite soar to the heavens.
So this conceit is sort of lame; but what about the acts themselves? Kooza begins with the contortionists, who do amazing stuff (but I have to admit that I've yet to meet anyone who says they really enjoy watching contortionists). Darya Vintilova performs next on trapeze, but most of the time she's wearing a harness, and that kind of takes the edge off of what she's doing. I enjoyed the opening moments of Yuri Shavro's unicycle act—for the first time in the show, I was aware of someone joyously relishing his skill. But so much of what he is called upon to do in this performance seems to require such intense concentration that the good karma melted away quickly. The first act closes with a high wire exhibition by Angel Quiros Dominguez, Vincente Quiros Dominguez, Angel Villarejo Dominguez, and Flouber Sanchez that made me more nervous for the acrobats' well-being than thrilled by their talent.
The second half of the bill features the two most exciting parts of the evening. The crowd-pleasing "Wheel of Death" segment, featuring Jimmy Ibarra and Carlos Marin Loaiza doing really dangerous-looking stuff on big metal wheels spinning rapidly through the air, is fairly gasp-inducing. One of these two gentlemen (I'm not sure which) does daredevil leaps atop the wheel that really do take the breath away. These guys got the one standing ovation of the evening.
Following a pickpocket bit featuring the skillful but slippery Lee Thompson (who works with an audience member rather than a stooge, which is very uncomfortable to watch), we meet Anthony Gatto, who is hands-down the best juggler I've ever seen; I really enjoyed his act and marveled that he never ever seems to make any mistakes. Kooza reaches a climax with Zhang Gongli piling up chairs to a height of (I guessed) 30 feet and then balancing on top of them; and then it concludes with a teeterboard segment that is impressive if not earth-moving.
There is nothing on the bill that I hadn't seen somewhere before, which was disappointing. And with the exceptions of the Wheel of Death and Gatto the Juggler, there was nobody who wasn't visibly working very very hard on stage. Not to begrudge the difficulty of all of the stunts being performed here, but for me the real trick is to make it look not only easy, but fun. At a show like this, I want to be so jealous of these people because I know I can't do what they've just done. But through most of Kooza my reaction was: why would I ever want to do what these people have just been made to do?