theater (reviews)

review: zarkana

Zarkana

Written and directed by Francois Girard
Director of creation Line Tremblay
Radio City Music Hall, Sixth Avenue at 50th Street
production web site: http://tinyurl.com/3srj75t

June 29, 2011 — October 8, 2011

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
June 26, 2011

“Trapeze” in noir spider web at Zarkana press preview performance 24 May 2011. Image by Martha Wade Steketee.

I was prepared for the tone and style of this show by a press preview event at the end of May about which I wrote [see http://wp.me/pHkrs-1ff].  The finished show is both more (more pieces, more “wow”) and less (the binding narrative felt imposed and silly) than I was led to expect.  What these acrobats and designers do create is minute after minute of physical and gymnastic pizzazz with surprises (one of the sequences was suddenly aborted the evening I attended, with the in-the-moment performers carrying on) and often boring narrative sequences.  The thwarted Magician Zark (Paul Bisson) sings and thrusts his cane around forcefully; his lady-love (Meetu Chilana) dons many guises at the center of each of the large-scale productions and sings with one yearning tone.  Both have lovely voices, but neither tunes nor any discernible lyrics add any drama to the proceedings. Focus on the acrobatics and the clowning and all will be well.

We begin with street performers working the audience (and scoping out the crowd for future audience interaction moments).  New Age-influenced music fills the 1800 seat Radio City, which feels slightly askew with lighting and details.  Are the main curtains quite that orange-yellow for every show?  Are the horns that emerge, Dizzy-Gillespie-Dr.-Suess-like out of the top of the two organs situated at the far left and far right and just outside the frame of the proscenium arch quite that comically shaped during all performances in this massive hall?   Houselights are up during this preshow as hundreds of audience members continue to stream to their seats, sound gradually swells while more and more white dressed performers (regardless of race or ethnicity, these performers are all in white face and white powdered wigs and varied costumes in white shades provide a kind of through line through the entire show) continue to assemble, and the anticipation grows.  Whistles (beep beep) and horns (toot toot) and laughter from down front in response to a bit of business involving buffing a bald man’s head in the audience.  Two of the white-hued characters who act as constantly shticking and occasionally speaking “rodeo clowns” of this bigtop adventure, are masters of ceremony who offer moments between scenes and characterizations more compelling than our dramatically framed Zark the Musician.

The acts proceed through the production from simplest and most earthbound (yet still entrancing as circus acts) to the most complex and aerial (deep in the second act).  A juggler throws and bounces and thwacks an outrageous number of juggling balls; a small group climbs ladders that are balanced and lifted.  An early personal favorite sequence involves a male-female “Rope Duet” (Di Wu and Gun Guo) that is sensuous, sexy, delightful — a tiny bit ice dancing, and more like great MGM choreography. Throughout this “Rope Duet” sequence, in which the two performers are in continuous physical contact side to side, top to bottom, up a rope trapeze, swinging and smoothly sliding, I think of the great Fred AstaireCyd Charisse “Dancing in the Dark” duet from Vincente Minnelli’s 1953 backstage masterpiece The Band Wagon. Note in particular in the link below a sequence involving a rise (Charisse assisted by Astaire) from a cement bench  that captures simple dance in synchronized movement better than anything I have ever seen on film.  The “rope duet” is replete with similar movements.

The balance of acrobatic and visual adventures should allow you to experience and find your own sensory and possibly cinematic connections.  After a long intermission, a beautiful sand painting sequence (seen and described in part in my referenced blog entry after the press preview) inspires frequent gasps from the audience.  The painter (Erika Chen) is skilled, and the sequencing is lovely — she summarizes the “story” and images of the acts in the first half of the program, and foreshadows the acts and core images from each of the sequences to come.  The penultimate sequence (the final involves the reunited lovers and is much less powerful) is that pictured in the image at the head of this review and showcased in the critic’s preview — it feels like Cirque du Soleil’s response to Spiderman, as it should be done visually.  Rigging climbing the sides of the performance space, a clearly visible net below (that the acrobats use only for their energetic and bouncing-trampoline-ish dismounts at the end of the sequence) and a singing spider high in the upstage wall.  Flying acrobats up down, through.  Luscious in black light.

So forget the through story.  Focus on the clowns.  And thrill to the physicality of it all.  Complete with a clown “flight” into the audience — you will gasp at least once I promise.

© Martha Wade Steketee (June 29, 2011)

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