Performance review: Cirque du Soleil's 'Kooza' at the Santa Monica Pier*
For fans of Cirque du Soleil -- and really, who isn't one at this point? -- it should come as no surprise that the new show, "Kooza," is a thrilling spectacle jampacked with white-knuckle acrobatic moments. Yes, and the ocean is deep and the sky is blue.
A touring production that is currently holding court in a big-top tent adjacent to the Santa Monica Pier, "Kooza" offers further proof -- as if more were needed -- that the global Cirque brand is in fine artistic shape.
If there's anything surprising about the show, it's that it represents a return to simplicity for Cirque. Those who are familiar with the company's mega-productions in Las Vegas and elsewhere will no doubt feel the absence of high-tech waterworks and other stage effects. But in the case of "Kooza," less is more -- a lot more.
For one thing, the retro "Kooza" is intended to be a symbolic nod to the company's roots as a touring tent show. The Montreal-based Cirque, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, had its big U.S. debut in 1987 at the Los Angeles Festival, so this current production is a homecoming of sorts.
"Kooza" features clowning and acrobatics in the old-fashioned sense, which is to say it relies almost entirely on physics and gravity to achieve its effects. A young clown named the Innocent receives a mysterious package containing a jack-in-the-box toy. The toy springs to life to reveal a moving castle of exotic wonders and hysterical performers.
The show's garishly colorful visuals seem inspired by Terry Gilliam and late-period Fellini. The acts themselves are pure Cirque. Among the most memorable are a quartet of contortionists who arrange themselves into cursive formations; a high-wire act involving two bicycles; and a showstopper featuring a revolving contraption called the Wheel of Death.
Audiences sit close to the stage thanks to the shallow seating configuration of the tent. The result is a feeling of intimacy as well as a magnified sense of danger. Unlike the movies, you never know how the acts will end -- will it be victory or disaster? (There are safety cables and nets in case of the latter.)
The rotating cast of performers surely features some of the hardest-working people in the industry. Juggling has no right to be exciting anymore, but Anthony Gatto's act reinvigorates the genre with impeccable craft and timing. The same goes for a clown act featuring a mad king, his two disgruntled jesters and a large urinating dog.
"Kooza," which runs in Santa Monica through Nov. 29 before moving to Irvine in January, is the creation of clowning veteran David Shiner, whose credits include Broadway and other Cirque productions. Shiner finds the right rhythm for the show, alternating the playful with the dramatic while smartly working with the physical limitations presented by a traveling big-top production.
Cirque's ability to take the utopian premise inherent in the circus -- that there's a place for everyone under the big top -- and expand it to a global stage is on fine display in "Kooza." The multinational cast is its own symbolic United Nations. The tent contains the whole world, which for an evening, at least, is a mighty fine place to be.
-- David Ng
"Kooza." Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 4 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 29. $60 to $135 for adults; check website for other categories. (800) 450-1480. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.
*Correction: An earlier version of this story had the incorrect date and name for the Los Angeles Festival. The festival was in 1987.
Photo: A high-wire act from Cirque du Soleil's "Kooza." Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times