Photo: Martin Girard / shootstudio.ca Costumes: Eiko Ishioka © 2014 Cirque du Soleil

“Medieval alien rainforest,” whispered one audience member during Wednesday night’s performance of Cirque du Soleil’s Varekai. It seemed as good a descriptor as any for the otherworldly set that served as a backdrop for a bright blend of aerial stunts, gymnastics, and live music.

Add a color-changing stick forest, a silvery staircase reaching to the ceiling, active steam vents in the ground, and wandering troubadours, and you know you’re in for quite a spectacle.

With one-time OBT dancer Fabrice Lemire as its artistic director, Varekai is strongest during awe-inspiring individual moments, especially the ones that play with the different levels allowed by the stadium-style Veteran’s Coliseum: Icarus flips through the air in a fight against the net that contains him during a beautiful aerial solo, a glimmering trapeze artist dangles 100 feet in the air using only the back of her neck to hold on, and a contortionist moves her body in remarkable ways while balancing precariously on thin cane-like sticks.

On the whole, it’s also a surefire hit for children (despite one unexpectedly graphic penis joke) with ample silly voices, rude humor, and deranged pantomiming clearly aimed at younger viewers.

Photo: Martin Girard / shootstudio.ca Costumes: Eiko Ishioka © 2014 Cirque du Soleil

The show does occasionally stagger under the weight of an unclear narrative—a winged man falls from the sky in a recognizable allusion to the myth of Icarus, but even the most well-read viewer is likely to be confused by what happens next. Varekai provides just enough plot that the audience feels compelled to track the story but not enough signposts for it to be a satisfying undertaking.

There were some drawn-out interludes—the vaudeville clown act dragged, earning only halfhearted spatters of applause— but when the tempo picked up and the stage shifted into motion, color, and noise, the show was at its best and brilliant self. After all, don’t we go to the circus to witness a spectacle?

Cirque du Soleil is known for busy stages teeming with gasp-worthy gymnastics and on that front Varekai didn’t disappoint. If you’re down with spectacle over story, catch Varekai before the show’s Portland finale on May 10. 

 

Cirque du Soleil's Varekai runs through May 10. Ticket information here.

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