According to the press release, Varekai means “Wherever” in the Romanian language, and the whole performance is supposed to be an homage to the nomadic gypsy lifestyle. As with every other Cirque du Soleil performance, you don’t have to know any of that–amazement is a universal language–and in fact, trying to assign meaning to the slapstick comedy or the balletic acrobatics actually reduces the work itself. The pre-show bits, in which two clowns mug to the audience as they literally mug unsuspecting guests, aren’t reflective of negative stereotypes against gypsies; if anything, they’re just demonstrations of how easily one’s heart, wallet, keys, etc., can be stolen when the right amount of pressure is applied.
To wit: Varekai will put a dumb smile on your face, so long as you don’t think about it. Slender bamboo forests don’t often play well with volcanic dancers, and springy neon anemone creatures have little in common with spiky green leaf contortionists, but who are we to question such endearingly berserk costumes? After all, when the myriad colors of this erratic cast and their even more eclectic costumes flit across the stage, it looks like an impressionist’s painting come to life. It matters not if that’s the be-winged Icarus falling out of the fragile toothpick contraption that represents the world above; his lithe command of a silken net and the way he precariously spins and dangles like a rag doll make us welcome his confused presence. In any event, don’t actions always speak louder than words? I can write of the way that a woman dangles from a trapeze using nothing more than her arched nape, or of the magnificent contact juggling that allows a man to twirl a baton as a soccer player might (sans hands), but nothing compares to the initial thrill, the escalated surprise, and the elevated suspense that comes from watching a quartet of gold-clad dancers spin their taut partners 720º in the air, or from witnessing another group’s series of swing-assisted leaps and flips across the stage.
That said, on reflection, Varekai is perhaps too varied of a show–the something for everyone approach makes for some awkward transitions and leaves a few performers standing out (not in a good way). A classic comedic act–the lanky, put-upon magician and his ditzy assistant–looks and feels like a lounge act, something that’s exacerbated later on in the show when the man attempts to sing a ballad, only to end up chasing his spotlight throughout the arena. Those moments, where you’re perhaps thinking of the real-world Roberto Benigni and Rebel Wilson, cause the dream-world of undulating coral contraptions and pommel-balancing wonders to collapse upon itself. If there’s going to be a reality check, let it be provided by the one stupendous segment in which a man approaches the crippled Icarus, gliding over on crutches (and eventually breakdancing with them) in a way that demonstrates the resilience and potential of both our bodies and imaginations. How can something like that not charm you?
Varekai plays at Barclays Center’s Cushman & Wakefield Theater through August 3rd, 2014.