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Icarus' tale, with a flip and a twist

THEATER REVIEW

Cirque du Soleil soars with 'Varekai,' its magnificent retelling of the Greek legend. Only in this version, he lives.

September 15, 2003|Don Shirley | Times Staff Writer

Icarus flew too close to the sun. When the wax of his homemade wings melted, he fell to the sea and died. At least that's what the ancient Greek story says.

At first glance, this tale might scare aspiring trapeze artists and others away from the Circus of the Sun.

Think again. The legend of Icarus is the narrative engine for Cirque du Soleil's latest and typically magnificent touring extravaganza, "Varekai," which is parked outside Staples Center, to be followed by similar stays at the L.A. and Orange County fairgrounds.

"Varekai" writer and director Dominic Champagne changed the old legend. Near the beginning of the show, Icarus (Anton Chelnokov) plummets to the Earth and loses his wings. But he survives.

In his first attempt to go back up, he's trapped in a net. Chelnokov climbs and contorts inside the net, figuratively perched halfway between the heavens and the Earth.

As the show goes on, however, Icarus learns to adjust to life on Earth, without his wings. In the second act, he watches closely as a young dancer (Vladimir Ignatenkov) uses round-tipped crutches to lope gracefully around the stage (co-choreographer Bill Shannon is credited with this act).

By the end of the show, Icarus has found a soul mate in a svelte hand balancer (Olga Pikhienko). They're married in a lavish ceremony, where the entertainment consists of spectacular Russian swing acrobats.

No doubt, Icarus will soon settle in the suburbs, refinance and raise a couple of kids who also will want to fly too close to the sun.

Although the narrative is a little more visible here than in most Cirque productions, it virtually vanishes as other acts come and go.

Don't arrive too late for the elaborate prelude. Against a backdrop of tall, golden rods, topped by a rickety-looking catwalk that's connected to an even more precarious staircase, howling wind noises introduce the gradual gathering of an array of colorful creatures out of Fantasy Central.

Then, clown Gordon White, who wears high-waisted pants out of which green reeds grow, processes the increasing din of encroaching civilization -- airplanes and jackhammers and cellphones -- through a Rube Goldberg-like machine.

The sound of tweeting birds emerges on the other end.

During the first act, the featured acts include nine young men who essentially juggle one another, a trio of Chinese child acrobats who whirl ropes with attached metal "meteors," four lithe sirens who cavort around a trapeze, and a trio of Georgian dancers who set off sparks with their swords.

The second act begins with an array of Tinkerbell-like green lights. Rambunctious "body skaters" slide across the stage to an Afro-Latin beat. Two young men soar through the sky using straps instead of wings -- eat your heart out, Icarus.

White and his black-clad nemesis, Rodrigue Proteau, do an elaborate variation on the old jokes about screwing in light bulbs.

At Saturday evening's performance, the ebullient juggler Octavio Alegria inadvertently illustrated the evening's theme of knowing how to adjust to unexpected problems, when he dropped a couple of objects in what looked like the least difficult moments of his routine, only to come back with roaring virtuosity in the harder parts.

The featured clowns are Claudio Carneiro, who plays a greasy old-school entertainer, and his cheerfully plump assistant, Mooky Cornish, a valuable reminder that most people aren't as toned and trim as the members of the Cirque corps.

In the first act, Carneiro attempts magic tricks; in the second, he tries to sing a torch song, despite repeated attempts at sabotage by his spotlight operator. This routine ends with the production's single biggest belly laugh.

Cirque's U.S. premiere occurred less than two miles from Staples, at an empty lot in Little Tokyo in 1987. Although ticket prices have at least quadrupled since then, the intoxicating thrill of that moment is still with us in "Varekai."

*

'Varekai'

Where: Staples Center Parking Lot No. 2, 1111 S. Figueroa St., Los Angeles. (Dec. 4-28, Fairplex in Pomona; Jan. 16-Feb. 8, Orange County Fair & Exposition Center, Costa Mesa)

When: Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m.; Fridays-Saturdays, 4 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 1 and 5 p.m. Thursday matinees, 4 p.m., on Oct. 9, 23, 30, Nov. 6 and 13. Dark Oct. 7, 28-29

Ends: at Staples Center, Nov. 16

Price: $60-$80 (ages 2-12, $42-$56). Parking, $20

Contact: (800) 678-5440

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Written and directed by Dominic Champagne. Sets by Stephane Roy. Costumes by Eiko Ishioka. Lighting by Nol Van Genuchten. Rigging by Jaque Paquin. Music by Violaine Corradi, sung by Mathieu Lavoie and Zara Tellander, with a band led by Michel Cyr. Choreography by Michael Montanaro and Bill Shannon. Sound by Francois Bergeron. Projections by Francis Laporte. Clown acts designed by Cal McCrystal. Makeup by Nathalie Gagne. Aerial acts by Andre Simard.

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