Cirque du Soleil's 29th production opened in 2011. It was originally a tour visiting New York City, Madrid, Moscow, and N.Y.C. again in turn — with the return engagement receiving 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 showroom; with no time to create a 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 Lighter and Softer Retool arrived in early 2014, completely altering the Excuse Plot. This ran until April 2016, when the production was closed permanently.
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 known as Movers) 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 final version retained the concept of a haunted theater, but had the two clowns (Hocus and Pocus) elevated to the protagonists journeying through the Magical Land to help restore it to its former glory, while Zark and the quasi-musical trappings were dropped.
Tropes specific to the original versions (2011-13):
- 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. Once the story was effectively eliminated, this was no longer a major concern.
- Cape Swish: As a lovelorn, melodramatic showman, Zark did this a lot.
- The Grotesque: Poor Pickled Lady...
- Nice Hat: Zark's rose-printed top hat.
- Pimped-Out Cape: Zark's rose-image based one.
- The Power of Love: Zark's magical powers could only be restored once he was reunited with Lia.
- The Quest: The original premise, as Zark sought to be reunited with his sweetheart.
- Reptiles Are Abhorrent: Kundalini the snake woman.
- 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 applied as of the 2014 relaunch.
- Satellite Love Interest: Lia, who only appeared in the final scene, was this for Zark.
- Stage Magician: Zark, who was also a case of Magicians Are Wizards.
- The Tragic Rose: Zark's costume was based on this trope. At the end, it became Something About a Rose.
- The Vamp: Kundalini and Tarantula both qualified; in the 2014 version they became Femme Fatale creatures, alternate forms of a good character.
Tropes specific to the 2014 retool:
- Lighter and Softer: Rather than a lovelorn magician's quest to regain his love and the challenges he faces along the way, it was now about two clowns helping to bring a rundown, magical theatre back to its former glory. Characters that were villainous in the original versions became Creepy Good.
- Reimagining the Artifact: While the original quest storyline and Zark were dropped, the Satellite Love Interest Lia and three of the Mutants, all of whom are played by the same actress/singer, were rethought. They became the same character: Lia was the shapeshifting spirit of the theatre itself, initially appearing in grotesque forms but emerging as beautiful and gentle in the finale with the Magical Land restored by everyone's efforts.
In all versions:
- All Asians Wear Conical Straw Hats: The Chinese Cook, a member of the troupe, has one.
- 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 2011-13 versions, this act reflected Zark's Darkest Hour mood at that point in the storyline.)
- 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 the Movers and 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.
- Creepy Good: The Movers (particularly the Mad Scientist) may look freaky but they're actually friendly and playful, if prone to sniping at each other. And the Mutants are actually the shapeshifted forms of the beautiful theatre spirit.
- Disappearing Box: Hocus is trying to stage a Human Cannonball act when Pocus interrupts him with this act, and eventually the two acts come together...(In the original versions, 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.
- Ethereal White Dress: The Movers, the musicians, and the handbalancer are all in white, reflecting the detail that they are the theater's ghosts.
- Everything's Better with Spinning: The cyr wheel/aerial hoop segment takes this conceit to heart.
- Evil Laugh: Two of the Mutants, Kundalini and Tarantula, have evil laughs — though, since the 2014 retool, they aren't actually evil but Creepy Good forms of the theatre's spirit.
- Faceless Eye: Myriad floating eyeballs provide a backdrop to the transitional segment that leads into the climactic banquine act.
- Gray Rain of Depression: The curtain goes up on the crumbling theatre as a gray thunderstorm is in progress beyond its walls. This also reflected Zark's initial mood in the original versions.
- 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.)
- 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.
- Mad Scientist: One is part of the troupe.
- 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 three (originally four) strange, singing creatures. All are at least half-human, and a tribute to the days of circus freak shows.
- No Fourth Wall: As per usual for Cirque.
- Non-Ironic Clown: Hocus and Pocus.
- People Jars: One of the Movers winds up floating in one for a while (in the 2011-13 version, this transformed her into the Pickled Lady, a Mutant).
- Pimped-Out Dress: Lia's gown in the finale appears to be made out of roses, both petals and full blossoms.
- Plant Person: Mandragora, a Mutant. The press material (and from there Wikipedia) explains that she embodies the flowering ivy growing in the old theater.
- Portmantitle: Of bizarre and arcana.
- 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.
- 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 (quasi-, since the 2014 retool) villainess sold in the gift shop!
- Something About a Rose: The finale goes nuts with this trope (after playing The Tragic Rose trope for most of the show in the original versions).
- Tacky Tuxedo: Pocus wears a white one.
- 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.
- 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.
- The aerial strap performers introduced with the 2014 retool, who previously appeared in the original cast of Varekai and the short-lived Los Angeles resident show IRIS.
- World of Ham: The show was initially Cirque du Soleil meets Rock Opera, so this was bound to apply. It's most obvious in the original versions when one compares the ultra-dramatic Zark with other Cirque central characters, who tend to be much less ostentatious than their supporting casts.