In other words, Cirque du Soleil is back. If you know what the troupe does, and if you know that you love it, then all you need to be told is where the hell it's taking place. Seriously, when was the last time you went to Randall's Island Park in the East River? One wonders how they came up with this location, but people are getting there: The tent was packed the night we saw the show, and the run of Varekai has already been extended for an extra nine performances through June 22.
For those of you who don't know much about Cirque du Soleil, let's start with the name -- translation, "Circus of the Sun." It's appropriate in the sense that this is one extremely hot circus. And while it may not have three rings like Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, what the Cirque people do is so special and so popular that the real ring here is the one at the cash register.
People will pony up to see a circus without circus animals because the human animal is by far the most trainable -- and the most willing to risk his or her neck for a meal. Lord knows, no other animal would be so foolhardy as to attempt some of the dangerous stunts in this show. For example, there's Anton Chenokov performing stunts high up in the air without a net. Well, that's not entirely true; he does have a net but it isn't beneath him. He hangs from it! Yes, all of his spectacular mid-air acrobatics take place in and around a man-sized piece of netting. The act is called "Flight of Icarus" but might as well be called "Net Profit."
Olga Pikhienko uses her hands to balance herself, upside down, on canes -- and that's just the premise of her act. Where she takes it from there will leave you slack-jawed in amazement. Most of the acts in Cirque du Soleil will cause you to ask yourself what possessed these people to learn such peculiar stunts. Yet there is something totally liberating about an act called The Russian Swings, whose members catapult themselves high up into the air where they hit huge pieces of cloth or canvas and then come sliding back down to earth. It's absolutely joyful to watch, and it sure looks like fun.
The show was written and directed by Dominic Champagne. Need we tell you that it bubbles? Champagne should toast his collaborators: Eiko Ishioka designed the costumes for this kaleidoscope in which all of the performers are clad in colorful, oftentimes playfully nutty outfits. Stephane Roy devised a set that has the look of an ultra-modern forest. Nol van Genuchten designed lighting that ranges from the intensely atmospheric to the spectacular; the tent is invaded by what seems like swarms upon swarms of fireflies during one sequence, and the effect is stunning.
One caveat: In order to cram as many people as possible into the Cirque tent, the seats are so narrow that they're downright uncomfortable. We may be among the shortest, smallest-boned (dare we say thin?) critics in New York, but even we felt like sardines. Of course, this won't be a problem for small children, and we should note that the sightlines are great; each row is a step up behind the one in front. But adults should bring a spatula and a lot of butter to get themselves into their seats.
We are told that, in the language of the gypsies, "varekai" means "wherever." Dominic Champagne may have one idea of what that has to do with this show, but we think it means that "wherever" Cirque du Soleil puts up its tent -- even on Randall's Island -- audiences will follow.