ST. PETERSBURG — The warm simplicity and jaw-dropping wonder of Cirque du Soleil often intersect in the mundane art of jumping rope. Lots of kids can do it, of course, but only the most skilled athletes in the world can do it while gamboling atop a perilously thin high wire or a mad-spinning Wheel of Death.
Therein lies the familiar-meets-fantasy allure of Kooza, the French-Canadian entertainment troupe's show now playing outside Tropicana Field. Cirque hasn't put on a tent show here in seven years, but the derring-do under the intimate Grand Chapiteau seduces the same as ever, blending elements of the traditional Big Top with paisley flourishes and Wonderlandian oddness.
The amorphous plot is a convenient, slightly creepy way to unveil the acrobatics: A cackling Trickster (jack-of-all-trades Jason Berrent) lures an Innocent (Cedric Belisle, in wide-eyed Charlie Chaplin mode) into a sexy, dangerous fantasy realm. This anything-goes land is lorded over by a slapstick king (Ron Campbell, a Seussian version of Seinfeld's Kramer) and his court clowns (Colin Health and Sean Kempton, giving the night a PG-13 edge for silly sex and drug gags). That's about it for exposition; cue the death-defying!
Whereas other Cirque shows dip deeper into fantasy or pop culture (the Beatles-themed Love is still the hot ticket in Las Vegas six years running), Kooza — which opened to the public Friday and runs until Dec. 16 — turns Ringling Bros. on its head, starting with that seemingly simple white tent that, over the course of several hours, reveals new treasures like origami gone wild. The introduction of the band — emitting a thundering score of Middle Eastern wails, tribal drums, ribald jazz riffs — is a trick in itself.
Circus realities are constantly bended and blurred; audience participation (fair warning: there's a LOT of it) comes with edge. Unicyclist Yuri Shavro wears a gaudy striped jacket but no shirt, a big red rose bawdily adhered to his chest. Conventional circus tumblers are replaced by the contortionist trio of — bear with me here — Anujin Chimed-Ochir, Oyun-Erdene Dalantai and Odgerel Byambadorj. How they stretch and bend and crab-walk is almost too much for the brain to process, an M.C. Escher sketch come to life.
Any criticism of Kooza is a gentle negative wrapped in a robust positive. I took my 8-year-old daughter (my patient, inquisitive one); she's a good barometer for when a show is getting long, and this one does, at almost three hours. She leaned on dad's shoulder with sleepy eyes during the mystifying chair-balancing grace of Yao Deng Bo, but only because the most astonishing and kinetic feats had come much earlier.
I could summon all manner of hyperbole to describe the high wire and Wheel of Death routines, and it still wouldn't suffice. The four overtly macho gents tightroping for your squealing pleasure are a hoot; they up the ante on jumping rope by leap-frogging and busting out bikes. When one performer almost had a very real fall to his demise, he didn't skip the trick — he did that sucker again. Nailed it!
And when the cast came out for its well-deserved, rather moving ovation at night's end, crowd huzzahs were exponentially louder for Jimmy Ibarra and Ronald Solis, who turned the Wheel of Death — actually two hamster wheels on the carnival ride of your nightmares — into a gravity-defying workout. I can honestly say I've never seen anything like that, in the movies or otherwise. For Cirque du Soleil and its brain-scrambling Kooza, special effects are for suckers.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.