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Buy ' 'O' Cirque du Soleil at Bellagio.'


Net Worth: Icarus' flight gets interrupted in a scene from 'Varekai.'

Cirque du Silly

'Varekai' swings into San Jose with feats of impossible skill

By Traci Vogel

WHEN THE French film Amélie hit the United States last year, it seemed like a perfectly timed steam valve of feel-good quirkiness had been opened. Audiences returned again and again to bask in Audrey Tautou's periodically pixilated pixie world, and each time we all sighed, "Awww!" and briefly exhaled our post-9/11 fears.

Cirque du Soleil's Varekai might just be this year's Amélie. It's not French, but it's French-Canadian; there's no self-deprecating heroine, but there are several bulbous-headed Dr. Seuss-type creatures who may well look like Amélie on a bad hair day. And it will definitely make you go, "Ahhh!"

The touring company of Cirque du Soleil has become famous over the past few years for its otherworldly story lines, which function merely as excuses to wow audiences with feats of acrobatic skill and seemingly impossible juggling.

Varekai swings its tricks around an Icarus figure, a boy with a Christopher Robin-type haircut who falls from the sky and loses his wings to a punk-ass group of scavengers. Wingless, Icarus wanders from strange scene to stranger scene, seduced by slithering green acrobats on a swing and red-cassocked Georgian sword fighters.

The colorful world that has landed Icarus is supposed to be located on a volcano, as indicated by puffs of steam, but when the mountain explodes, it turns out its lava isn't awfully harmful. In fact, the lava looks remarkably like some very muscular men in flame-licked body suits and I'm-Mister-Green-Christmas wigs who fling themselves from Russian swings onto extended sheaths of fabric and bounce back with out-flung arms. Ta da!

Maybe it was cruel, but I brought a friend with me to see Cirque who has a professed fear of clowns. I thought Varekai might be a gentle way for my friend to confront her fears beneath the big top. In fact, the "clowns" in Varekai in no way resemble traditional circus clowns.

Instead, Varekai treats its clowns like the artistes they are and affords them their own subplot. Claudio and Mooky, his lovely assistant, play a bait-and-revenge game of mean-spirited hilarity. Perhaps the funniest number is when Claudio croons a soulful version of "Ne Me Quitte Pas" ("Don't Leave Me") while chasing around the spotlight, which keeps wandering off. These clowns are to clowning what Mick Jagger is to the pout.

In many ways, a Cirque du Soleil production is anti-circus. There are no animals, no ringmaster with a whip, no tiny cars. The costumes, music and choreography are unique to each story line. What draws some people to Cirque is that its creative impulse seems to arise not only from childhood coloring books but from feverish nightmares as well; from the swamps of fears of lostness and from eruptions of garish precocity. `

A necessary element to being inducted into a world is the Guide. There are several Guides in Varekai. The first is Vigie, "The Skywatcher," who captures obnoxious sounds and turns them into bird song with his Rube Goldberg-like invention. The second is nothing but a dot of light, a firefly whose Tinkerbell-on-speed voice ushers us into fairy tales. The third is a mysterious fallen angel, whose light-bulb hat beams a literal light in the darkness.

The last Guide might be considered the music, composed by Violaine Corradi. From the very beginning, the sounds of Varekai wrap the audience like a tapestry, crackling with forest sounds and drum lines and weird chants. Sometimes the music sounds like tango; sometimes it sounds like klezmer; sometimes it sounds like Moby mixed with Celine Dion. Like Cirque du Soleil itself, Varekai's soundtrack combines soulfulness and silliness in perfect and unpretentious proportions.

Varekai runs through Feb. 23 underneath the blue and yellow tents at Market and San Salvador streets in downtown San Jose. Tickets are $45-$70 for adults, $31.50-$45.50 for children, $40.50-$58.50 for students/seniors. (800.678.5440)

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From the January 23-29, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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