The gay creative team for Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Kooza’ take an absurdist romp through the imagination of The Trickster


CIRCUS ANIMALS | Jason Berrent, left, plays the mischievous Trickster in ‘Kooza,’ with artistic director Michael G. Smith, inset, tweaking the show.

With most productions from the Canadian group Cirque du Soleil — big top spectacles that combine circus acts, comedy and abstract music wrapped around a fantasy dramatic presentation — you can’t quite tell what it will be going on just by reading about them. Or talking about them. Really, you have to see them for yourself.
And Kooza, the latest, is no exception.

The press release talks of a Trickster who creates a world in which he can toy with The Innocent by constantly changing the rules and then gleefully punishing the resulting and inevitable transgressions. It sounds a little bit like Zeus, or an old episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation … except that the Trickster looks more like The Joker than an august all-powerful Greek god or the stiff alien Q. But godlike he is. Kooza, as it turns out, is the name of the alternate reality, the Kooza world, which is The Trickster’s construct.

“It is such a great character — you can’t help but identify with him,” says Jason Berrent, the gay man who gets to play The Trickster. “He is the master of his own world that he creates as he goes along. He is confident, commanding, imaginative, sexy, and is completely in charge. He has even invented himself and can re-invent himself on a whim.”

Berrent actually created the character in Kooza’s original incarnation, although he took a sabbatical to perform other theater before returning to the current tour. And because of his background — Berrent is a 2002 U.S.

National Championship gymnast, as well as a dancer — he incorporates a great deal of physicality and gymnastic training into the role. He worked out many of the moves he uses in the role by long hours of experimentation alone in the dance studio.

“I am a tumbler,” he says. “That is what is called the floor exercises in the Olympics. But I am also a dancer, so I tied the tumbling moves together with a dance narrative. It also helped a lot when I got to see the costume I was going to wear.”

And what he gets to wear is a part of the aesthetic for Kooza, which includes Cirque’s famed sense of exaggerated sexuality. The acts of derring-do are eye-popping and tripped-out. The balancing act becomes a gloriously muscular man using eight chairs to create a 23-foot tower on which to perform one-armed handstands. There is also a group of acrobats leaping in bewildering patterns, a unicycle on a tightrope, and something called “The Wheel of Death,” which is so dangerous it is not done at some performances.

Deciding what each show will look like falls to Michael G. Smith, a Brit who joined the tour mid-run as its artistic director.

Although the show was already basically complete when he joined it, Smith still fiddles with a show that is of necessity constantly changing. Adding Berrent back into the tour is a good example.

“The changes are subtle and you wouldn’t really notice much different if you have seen it before. Of course, that is my job,” jokes Smith, who lives with his partner in Paris when he’s not on tour.

Michael-Smith_Artistic-Director“Jason created The Trickster, so that helped [to integrate him seamlessly]. But more importantly, The Trickster represents a concept more than a real flesh-and-blood character.”

Berrent says he took some inspiration from Jim Carrey’s film The Mask in developing The Trickster. “But mostly he came from the deep down. These are the fantasies of every one who has ever felt helpless when confronted with a difficult situation and thinks, ‘Boy, if only I could just snap my fingers and change this.’”

Still, with his mischievous ways, the character sounds more villain than hero. So who wins in the end? The manipulative Trickster or the guileless Innocent?

Ultimately, it’s the audience that can decide how they feel, after the tent has folded up and the imaginary world of Kooza has become just a memory. “Between strength and fragility, laughter and smiles, turmoil and harmony, Kooza explores themes of fear, identity, recognition and power,” read the press materials for the show.

Maybe existential or absurdist are the best adjectives for Kooza after all.

— Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 14, 2012.