WELCOME TO ZARKANA — Where the ground rains up and love falls from the sky.
— From the souvenir program
Cirque du Soleil's 29th production opened in 2011. It was originally a tour, visiting New York City, Madrid, and Moscow in turn. It returned to New York City for a second summer run in 2012, albeit with a Lighter and Softer retool that included most of the song lyrics getting changed from English to "Cirquish". The plans for the touring rotation to persist were changed when Viva Elvis, which had struggled at the Aria Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, was forced to close. Cirque was asked to bring in another show to occupy the room; with no time to create a new production from scratch (in part because Michael Jackson ONE was being prepared for the Mandalay Bay resort down the street), Zarkana was relocated to the Aria in late 2012. Another Retool to further soften the show, a surreal one even by Cirque standards, arrived in early 2014, and went to the lengths of completely altering the Excuse Plot.The first two versions were as follows: In a decrepit, abandoned theater, the magician Zark pines for his lost love Lia. His grief proves powerful enough to reveal that the place houses a Magical Land, and with a troupe of the theater's ghosts (white-clad circus performers) serving as his companions, he ventures through it to find her again. Our hero faces curious, sometimes sinister "Mutants" and a dark night of the soul before finding a happy ending for himself, his true love, and his troupe — singing all the way.The current version retains the concept of a haunted theater, but has two clowns serving as the protagonists journeying through the Magical Land, with both the character of Zark and the quasi-musical trappings dropped entirely.
This show contains (or contained, prior to the second retool) examples of:
All There in the Manual: Since the first Retool changed most of the lyrics to Cirquish, a viewer needed to read up on the premise and characters beforehand (Wikipedia, the souvenir program, etc.) to have any sense of the story. Now that the story has effectively been eliminated, this is no longer a concern.
Audience Participation: Hocus and Pocus dragoon a woman in the audience to serve as the test subject in an electric chair demonstration. Wackiness ensues! (In the original versions, this act also reflected Zark's Darkest Hour mood at that point in the storyline.)
Cape Swish: As a lovelorn, melodramatic showman aware of the audience, Zark did this a lot.
City Shout Outs: A subtle example. The first image the sand painter creates is that of the city the show is being performed in, marking the theater as specifically located in it.
Costume Porn: Particularly for Zark, his troupe, and the Mutants.
Clock Punk: The backdrop for the wheel of death act — as the wheel is spun by the acrobats, the gears turn — and spark with electricity.
Disappearing Box: Zark tried to accomplish this trick with Pocus as the person who will disappear in it and Hocus as an assistant.
Einstein Hair: Several members of the troupe have this, including The Mad Scientist.
Evil Laugh: Two of the Mutants, Kundalini and Tarantula, have evil laughs — though, since the second retool, they aren't so much evil as darker forms of a good being (Lia).
Faceless Eye: Myriad floating eyeballs provide a backdrop to the "funeral", the transitional segment that leads into the climactic banquine act.
Gray Rain of Depression: Pre-second retool, the curtain went up on Zark and the crumbling theatre as a gray thunderstorm was in progress beyond its walls.
Great Balls of Fire: Kundalini's singing is punctuated with pillars of real flame — a prelude to the high wire acrobats who perfrom their act as a flaming pendulum swings back and forth over their wire. (A similar act appeared in director Francois Gerard's previous show for Cirque du Soleil, ZED.)
Hair Decorations: Ti-Boss, a member of the troupe who calls out the clowns on their "stupid" hijinks, keeps her hair up with a pair of bows.
Human Cannonball: Pocus winds up being one — and winds up traveling to another planet as the transition to the cyr wheel/aerial hoops act.
Humanoid Aliens: The Jovians have blue-green skin with coloration that resembles camouflage. From this skin there grows many large, bubble-like protrusions. A posed group photo in the program adds webbed hands to them (absent onstage because the gloves used for this effect are incompatible with the performers' act, cyr wheel/aerial hoops).
Institutional Apparel: The troupe member known as Camelion Convict (a prominent figure in the preshow) wears a variant on the "old school" version of this trope: a white and gray vertically-striped jumpsuit with a matching pillbox hat.
Magical Land: The program explains that the theater has housed this "dormant world" for some time, and now it's awakened once more.
Men in White and Women in White: The circus troupe, the musicians, and the handbalancer, reflecting the detail that they are the theater's ghosts.
Monstrous Humanoid: Two of the Mutants appear to be half-human, half-another creature. Kundalini, from the waist down, seems to consist of writhing serpents. Tarantula is a spider woman who onstage appears more human than arachnid, but the sand painting suggests her "true" form resembles that of a Drider or the Racnoss Empress. (In her onstage form, she resembles Maleficent — though where that villainess's headdress suggests horns, Tarantula's suggests fangs.)
Mutants: The catchall designation for the four strange, singing creatures. All are at least half-human, and a tribute to the days of circus freak shows.
The Power of Love: Zark's magical powers could only be restored once he was reunited with Lia.
Previously On: A rare stage version of this trope! The sand painter's images recap the entire show up to that point and then lead into the next act. This made more logical sense in the original two-act version, as there the sand painting act came at the beginning of Act Two, and thus after an Intermission.
Recut: To help bring the show down to 90 minutes plus preshow from the 135-minute original version, the Las Vegas staging dropped the rope duet (an aerial act) and the Intermission.
Reptiles Are Abhorrent: Kundalini the snake woman, pre-second retool. She's still menancing, but not really evil.
Rock Opera: Cirque's publicity materials couched the show as this combined with their traditional format. This became less obvious when the first retool changed the lyrics from English to Cirquish, but even by this company's standards, there was a lot of singing in this show — primarily by Zark and the Mutants, whereas in most of the other shows (Alegria and Quidam being the key exceptions) the singers are simply part of the band and only occasionally join the action. This trope no longer applies as of the 2014 relaunch.
Satellite Love Interest: Lia, who only appears in the final scene, was this for Zark. She remains in the show, but rather than being The Artifact, she's the "true", most beautiful form of the shapeshifting singer.
Scenery Porn: Elaborate scenery setpieces are augmented with computer-generated imagery projected onto the backdrops and proscenium arches.
Series Mascot: Tarantula, once the show reached Vegas. There are even cute little plush dolls of the villainess sold in the gift shop!
True Blue Femininity: The Oracle (a sand painter) wears blue and even uses blue sand to create her images of the past, present, and future.
The Vamp: Kundalini and Tarantula both qualified pre-second retool; nowadays, they would better qualify as Femme Fatale creatures, being alternate forms of a good character.
Walking Shirtless Scene: The handbalancer. Technically he has a shirt, but it's so short it leaves his midriff bare, and his contortions quickly expose the rest of his chest. By his act's end, it's off completely for a few moments.
World of Ham: The show was initially Cirque du Soleil meets Rock Opera, so this was bound to apply. It's most obvious when one compares the ultra-dramatic Zark with other Cirque central characters, who tend to be much less ostentatious than their supporting casts.