Stage Door Review


Sunday, April 23, 2023


written and directed by David Shiner

Cirque du Soleil, Grand Chapiteau,

2150 Lake Shore Blvd. W. (Humber Bay Shores), Toronto

April 19-June 18, 2023

“Koozå" – Another Word for "Unforgettable”

*This is a slightly edited version of my 2007 review of Koozå. The story and characters are the same but the personnel may have changed

Koozå is one of the best Cirque du Soleil shows to visit Toronto in years. Written and directed by David Shiner, Koozå premiered earlier this year in Montreal. It attempts to return to the origins of Cirque du Soleil by placing greater emphasis on a narrative to provide a context for its sequence of fantastic circus acts. Besides the unified production values, original score and banishment of animal tricks in favour of amazing feats of human ability, what set the first Cirque shows apart was the presence of an overriding story about the transformative power of the theatre. That story is what has caused the very first Cirque show I saw, Le Cirque réinventé in 1987, to stay with me all these years. Koozå will surely to do the same.

The name Koozå is supposedly inspired by the Sanskrit word “kósa” that means “box”, “chest” or “treasure” and is perhaps a cognate to the English word “casket”. It was chosen because one of the concepts for the production is the idea of a “circus in a box”. I’d like to think is was also chosen because “kósa” is also the word used in Vedanta philosophy for the three sheaths or cases that envelop the souls, the first of pleasure, the second of intellect or will and the third of basic nourishment. I mention this because Shiner’s inventive scenario appeals to all three come in its merging of acrobatics, storytelling and clowning.

The show begins with an entertaining as soon as you enter the iconic blue-and-yellow Grand Chapiteau. A very funny loose-limbed clown acts as House Manager trying in vain to maintain order during the antics of two other clowns while an interloping clown keeps trespassing on the stage only to be chased off by what seem to be two New York policemen. We may think this is merely the audience warm-up, but soon enough we realize that these characters are integral to the show, the first in a series of re-evaluations that make Koozå not merely enormously entertaining but also intellectually interesting.

Once the House Manager succeeds in dimming the lights with his powerful remote control, the show proper begins when we meet a childlike character called the Innocent. His unsuccessful attempts to fly a kite are interrupted by the arrival of a deliveryman with a large parcel that turns out to be the magic box of the title. The Innocent of course pries open the lid and suddenly out like a life-sized jack-in-the-box clad in a swirl of colours pops the Trickster ready to initiate the Innocent into a fantastic new world. One “coup de théâtre” follows the next as the Trickster wielding his magic wand causes a three-storey pavilion, both beautiful and whimsical at once, gradually to appear and glide onto the stage.

This pavilion clearly represents the kingdom of the theatre or of the circus. Its first storey has an old-fashioned proscenium stage, the second contains the live band and singers and in the third we find the former House Manager now crowned as King with the two principal clowns of the warm-up as his lackeys. We’re now in a world that doesn’t follow the normal order of things. The King, like a M. Hulot with too much power, controls this world with a oversized remote control (harking back to the House Manager’s) with a bewildering array of functions and a combination light sabre and cattle prod that paralyzes anyone who contradicts him or, sometimes, himself. Paralleling the Trickster’s wand and the King’s remote, Shiner neatly makes the clown sequences a comically chaotic echo of the acrobatic wonders on display.

And these are wonders. Each act gives a fillip to a familiar circus act to make is special. Instead of a single contortionist, there are three for whom touching the back of the head with the bum is the easiest thing imaginable. That certain “ick” factor associated with contortion is offset by the real beauty of the living sculptures they create. Unicycle sales will certainly go up after audiences see a performer who is so at home on his vehicle he can also lift and manoeuvre an acrobat while peddling away. The first act closes with not just one tightrope but two, one above the other, and with a fantastic team from Spain clad as sultans whose act builds from tightrope dancing to a stunningly impressive finale.

Act 2 begins in a way that is totally unexpected though related to the King’s mishaps in the clown scenes. The Innocent finally wrests control of the magic wand from the Trickster, but, as with the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, does he know how to use it? What he conjures up is not the colourful kingdom we first met but its dark opposite, a kind of macabre Las Vegas floorshow of the dead wittily choreographed by Clarence Ford, with skeleton showgirls dancing for the pleasure of Death himself, clad in what seems a cloak of living rats. This sequence is so startling you have to remind yourself that you are watch live theatre, not cinematic CGI.

As if Act 1 didn’t already have enough oomph, Act 2 is calculated to blow your mind. First up is the incredible Wheel of Death, well named since the bizarre apparatus does not allow the two artists to use safety harnesses. Never has Cirque du Soleil presented an act like this before. The 1600-pound “Wheel” looks like a gigantic pair of opera glasses without the lenses. Part of the fun of this apparatus is that even when you first see it you can’t figure out how the two artists will use it. Then, even when the artists set it in motion, you can’t imagine what amazing things the two will do with it. When you find out the wonder grows and grows. It’s simply breath-taking. I was pressed right back in my seat from the thrill of it.

After a clown interlude featuring the light-fingered interloper clown to help our heartbeats return to normal, comes another fantastic act. A juggler, clad like a human disco ball, juggles balls, Indian clubs, rings, but you have never seen anyone juggle them with such incredible speed or in such amazing quantities or combinations. Not only that, but the aerial patterns he creates are so beautiful you can easily forget the immense human effort and precision that has produced them. After such kineticism the intense concentration and strength of a performer who does one-handed handstands on 23-foot tower of chairs, comes as a welcome change before the riotous teeterboard finale.

As director, Shiner has unerringly paced the show by balancing movement with concentration, thrills with comedy, all the while using the acrobatics and clowning to move the surrounding story of the Innocent and Trickster forward. I have two quibbles. I would like to have seen more clearly both how the nightmare world the Innocent conjures up in Act 2 comes to be replaced by the previous circus world and what precisely the Innocent does to deserve his reward at the close. The ending would work better for me if the nightmare scene were a kind of trial that the Innocent has to overcome in order to learn more about himself and the world.

As one might expect from Cirque du Soleil, the production values are absolutely top-of-the-line. The Sanskrit-derived title allows the creative team to give a Bollywood flavour to the show from Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt’s exquisitely fanciful costumes to Jean-François Côté’s rhythmically exciting music so seductively sung by the lead vocalist to Martin Lebrecque’s fabulous lighting that often encompasses the whole interior of the tent.

In short, David Shiner’s attempt to bring Cirque du Soleil back to its origins is an enormous success, for using the circus to tell a story is what the Cirque is all about. Don’t miss it.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: The Charivari; Chinese Chairs; the Wheel of Death. © 2023 Cirque du Soleil.

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