Just before the latest Cirque du Soleil traveling show begins in its striped tent on Randall's Island, New York City, an announcer warns that the production contains flashing lights, "which may cause difficulty for people with photosynthesis epilepsy." Very considerate, these French Canadians. But given that this audience has more than its share of hip, jaded Manhattanites, the management might also offer an advisory that Kooza features something far more hazardous to an urban sophisticate's enjoyment: mimes and clowns.
Who among us has not mocked a mime? Those mordant, white-faced pierrots, especially of the Russian variety, are usually about as funny as Dostoevsky, as buoyant as Brezhnev. Even passionate Cirque fans who love the company's acrobats and plate-spinners, its mix of traditional circus and modern theatrical sorcery have wished that the clowns would be sent out, and the Mime Safety Board called in. Over the years, in seeming response to public disfavor, the Cirque brass has severely reduced the time given to clowns. They were prominent in early traveling shows like Saltimbanco and Alegria, then mere supporting players in Cirque's Las Vegas extravaganzas: the water show O, the martial-arts epic Ka and the Beatles tribute Love. The evolution was part of the company's goal of always reinventing itself, and avoiding the corporate complacency that would turn Cirque du Soleil into a Cirque du So-what.
So guess what? Now marking its silver anniversary (the company was founded by Montreal street performers in 1984), Cirque has done a show like the early ones. Kooza, from the Sanskrit word for "box," is light on elaborate production values, heavy on old-fashioned circus acts: jugglers, tumblers, contortionists, high-wire walkers... and clowns. Kooza's writer-director, David Shiner, has decades of intercontinental renown as a clown-mime; and his show throws a long spotlight on three of the breed. Nice change: they're all North Americans, and they talk no Marcel Marceau winsomeness here. Surprise: they're fast, raucous and pretty funny.
The imperious King clown (Gordon White) leads his vigorous aides-de-camp (Christian Fitzharris and Jimmy Slonina) strutting through the crowd before the performance and, during it, dragging volunteer victims on stage for some not-so-innocent merriment. In one prize bit, White is seen fainting from exhaustion and Fitzharris leans over him to give him the breath of life; as the kiss gets more amatory, Slonina avidly cranks an invisible camera and cheap disco music fills the air it's the first Cirque de Porno. There's also a cast member in a yellow shaggy-dog suit who trots to the front of the stage, lifts his leg and pees into the front row. Note to those with the $135 tickets: you may get wet.
Every Cirque show, even one as primal as this, has a story line. Here, a boy in striped pajamas (Stéphan Landry) receives a big red box. He opens it and pop!, out springs Jack, a lithe, saucy, strutting trickster (Adam Mike Tyus). This Jack-be-limber cues an instant circus fantasia: 16 scamps in parade regalia (gold jackets, white pants, red fezzes) who launch into a charivari the kind of tumbling act that populates your most soaring dreams, where you feel graceful and defy gravity. At the rear of the stage there's a three-story bandstand, which goes unnoticed until one of the chorines dives from its top, maybe 40 feet high, into a soft tarpaulin held by the burlier performers. A girl and a guy demonstrate that giant beach balls are not for throwing but for dancing on: Fred and Ginger, live, with no missteps. Then the guy on the ball puts another ball on his head, and the girl climbs up to stand on that. It's body art of nearly the highest order...
...because the highest immediately follows: three ballet-contortionists. They gracefully destroy the laws of physics, combining in artful permutations that no one should try at home unless bending backward and touching your butt with your head is as easy as rolling over in bed. The evening's most incredible image: Natasha Patterson, a 13-year-old from Marin County, rests her chest on the stage, her elbows under her chin, as her legs it's painful for me even to type this Walk in a Circle Around Her. The audience gasps in a mixture of wonder and horror; it's not that the body can't do this, it's that the body maybe oughtn't. Whatever the crowd reaction, the maneuver is nonetheless spectacular. (You can see the entire routine here on Youtube; Patterson's big moment comes about 4 min. 45 sec. into the clip.)
Other amazements await. On a trapeze swing, the blond Darya Vintilova propels herself out from the apparatus, does two full twirls and catches her legs on the side straps. The unicycle duo (strong Yuri Shavro, supple Diana Aleschenko) perform an apache while wheeling around the stage; then she doughnuts herself around his head. Zhang Gongli stacks four, six, eight chairs, one balanced on another, and does a handstand on the top of the pyramid. Anthony Gatto, a showman with a plethora of panache, tosses and catches seven balls, seven hoops, an alley's worth of bowling pins; he's simply the best juggler ever. And in an act already used to sensational effect in Ka, Jimmy Ibarra and Carlos Marin Loaiza run inside and on top of the Wheel of Death, a pair of gigantic hamster wheels held by an outside steel belt. It must be tremendous fun to perform, if you don't mind risking both your lives and all your limbs.
That's the thing about Cirque du Soleil: the gasps of admiration its individual routines elicit, and the grand or simple design of each show, obliterate the cynicism of coolest, most derisive dudes. (Even Joel Stein has admitted to liking Cirque.) So Kooza can be recommended without reservation, even to those who can't stand clowns. And yes, the three in this show engage in a brief mime routine, but that's just to taunt you. Clowns do that.