The Cirque is back in town, but the troupe's brand-new spectacle Zarkana, which is playing at Radio City Music Hall through early fall, isn't a colorful, kiddie confection.
Zarkana is much more mature than Cirque's insect-centric Ovo, which wowed families on Randall's Island last year. It's darker both in theme and look. The plot (perhaps premise is a better word; like most Cirque shows, there's no real story here) follows a brooding magician (raspy French-Canadian singer Garou) as he searches for his lost love (Cassiopée, who also plays a variety of different temptresses). It's big on pretension and power ballads that, frankly, aren't very seductive. However, it's also filled with amazing feats that will make kids swoon.
I took my six-year-old to Zarkana and she loved it (more than I did, actually). But there are some things you should know before buying your tickets. Here are eight things to keep in mind when seeing Zarkana.
1. Arrive early so you can interact with the ensemble. Many cast members roam the lobby and the downstairs area. They don't speak; instead they play music, stare inquisitively and pose for pictures. My daughter made friends with an adorable lady dressed as a Victorian Rag Doll.
2. Warning: The aesthetics are super-cool... and kind of creepy. Cirque has really gone all out in terms of costume and set design. The magician's steampunk lair looks like J. F. Sebastian's toy-and-gadget-filled loft in Blade Runner. There are all of these amazing living "toys" running around and getting into all kinds of trouble, including that Rag Doll, who jumps into a Jules Verne-looking contraption, and is transformed into a "creepy six-armed baby." (That's what my daughter called it.) If your kid is sensitive to grotesque images, there may be upsetting moments.
3. Expect sensory overload. Although there aren't any real rings, the amount of activity going on made Zarkana feel like a three-ring circus. Typically, there's an acrobatic act going on downstage while the ensemble members flit around upstage with a digital backdrop projected behind them. At times it's difficult to figure out where to focus. That's why you should...
4. Keep your eyes on the feats. Because really, that's what you came for, right? As usual, Cirque seems to attract the most amazing acts in the industry. Carole Demers, a lovely lady with an incredible sense of balance, does insane flips and tricks on the Russian bar. Juggler Masha Choodu masterfully manipulates bright green balls. And of course there's the flying trapeze, tons of tumblers and the Wheel of Death. If you're a circus-goer, you've seen these routines before, but the skill level here is really top-notch.
5. Laugh at the clowns. There are a lot of them, but most of the yuks come from duo Hocus and Pocus, who wreak havoc while trying to help their magician master. The one bit of vaguely risque audience participation is in one of their sketches (they find a pretty girl to bring up and embarrass onstage). The rest of the time they engage in the kind of lowbrow high-jinks kids love. Hocus has a particularly funny moment when he blasts off into space and flies high above the audience's heads while brandishing a Spider-Man T-shirt.
6. Check out those aliens. After his flight, Hocus lands on another planet (how this fits into the story I still don't know) and it's pretty neat. Bumpy green creatures roll about the stage in aerial hoops. It's definitely one of the most striking moments, and kids will absolutely love it.
7. Marvel at the sand painting. Yes I realize that sounds like something you'd watch someone do at Union Square Park but this was by far my favorite act. Erika Chen is an incredible artist who creates detailed pictures from sand in a matter of seconds using only her hands, no tools. Her process is projected on a massive screen, so you can see her at work. It's a quiet, intimate moment (she's alone onstage), and totally awesome.
8. Look for discounts. Full-price tickets range from $52 to $300, which is quite a chunk of change, especially for families! But there are definitely deals out there. Currently, BroadwayBox.com is running this special: Buy one orchestra ticket and get the second for $30. There's no way to turn this into a cheap playdate, but you can soften the financial blow a bit.
Cirque du Soleil: Zarkana is playing at Radio City Music Hall through October 8.
Photos by OSA Images