Review: Cirque du Soleil: Varekai at Dr Pepper Arena in Frisco

Cirque du Soleil: Varekai

Through Sunday (showings at 4 and 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 1:30 and 5 p.m. Sunday)

Dr Pepper Arena

2601 Avenue of the Stars




Posted 7:10am on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014

Confession: Until Wednesday, I was a Cirque du Soleil virgin. I’ve always admired their twisted beauty and derring-do from afar, but never had the opportunity to catch a show.

When one of their touring shows — Varekai — made a stop in Frisco, I got my chance.

Settled into my seat for opening night at Dr Pepper Arena, I was prepared to be wowed. The story of Varekai (which means “wherever” in the Romany language) is a “re-imagining” of the Greek myth of the fall of Icarus, and namely what happens after his fall.

When Icarus begins his wingless descent, it is breathtaking. He is trapped in a net, which he uses to great effect, folding and unfolding himself out of the net, at one point twisting it into a rope-like prop, which he scales, contorting himself, until he unravels toward the ground at warp speed, missing the floor by just a few inches.

He lands in a forest packed with strange creatures in those classic Cirque costumes (by Eiko Ishioka) — shimmery, colorful, exotically organic-looking.

Aurally, the Cirque shows are purposefully a sort of multicultural melange. In the case of Varekai, the spoken word — often shouted by a manic character called Skywatcher — sounded like irritated jibberish of a vaguely European extraction; the music took on everything from a touch of electronica to a tribal flavor and monk-like chants, all resulting in a sort of theatrical Esperanto.

One of the standout moments came with the performers in the “Icarian games” — otherwise known as feet jugglers. They sit/lay on their backs in a sort of half-chaise, and spin and juggle other humans … with their feet. Picture upside down log-rolling, only more intricate and impossible.

Somehow, the performers being juggled manage to get into position to be able to execute backwards flips (At one point, I counted 11 or 12. In a row.)

Since it would be impossible to sustain that level of athleticism and energy throughout, and since there are costumes to be changed and set pieces to be re-arranged, the show fills space with comic relief. Hence the series of clowning vignettes that weave their way in between acts. Among them, pickpockets and magicians (beware of audience participation!), mildly risque shtick-sters, and a powder-blue disco-suit-wearing French crooner singing Jacques Brel’s Ne Me Quitte Pas, while literally chasing a spotlight around the stage. I found this business a mix of entertaining, cornball, and fidget-inducing.

At intermission, an audience member behind me noted: “Once it got going, it was good, but what’s the deal with that Christopher Lloyd dude?” Pretty sure he was referring to the Skywatcher, who, during one bit later in the show, earned both guffaws and eyerolls (mine) when, he shouted: “Twerk it!”

But when the action was rolling, there were certainly plenty of “Wow” moments. Among them:

• The Georgian Cossack dancers, in all their leaping, spinning, kneeling glory.

• A performer’s solo dance on crutches, at one point giving the illusion of ice skating.

• A woman flying through the air on a hoop, arching her body with a bizarre melding of precision and animal grace.

• A female performer, upside-down, balancing her hands on canes, snaking herself into positions that would make my chiropractor weep tears of lifelong prosperity.

In the middle of the Russian swings act, the rousing music cued us that this was the show’s finale — as if stunts weren’t hint enough. Two and three men on head-to-head swinging, see-saw-like contraptions, flipping, catapulting to the other side, and hurtling into giant canvas slides. The music swells to crescendo, one performer vaults toward the sky. He’s in mid-air, and the music cuts to an abrupt silence. Until he sticks the landing on the other swing. Whew.

The circus arts feats were impressive, and left my mind buzzing with a new respect for the capabilities of the human body. But even after the finale, I found myself craving more: longer acts? More dazzle? More breathtaking moments? Maybe that’s a good thing — leave ’em wanting more! But the heavy-handed attempts at comedy, and slight wanes in energy throughout, kept Varekai from feeling like a seamless whole.

Still, Cirque du Soleil, this was only our first date. You can tell your spotlight-chasing guy that I won’t leave you. Not just yet.

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