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November 25, 2014

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‘Cirquespeak’ is a language — or anti-language — of its own

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Cirque du Soleil

Zarkana” by Cirque du Soleil.

As Paul Bisson conveys “Cirquespeak” to the audience, he is not exactly singing.

He’s playing an instrument, which happens to be his voice.

“The rhythm of the melody of the words finishing with the same sound makes something,” says Bisson, who portrays the lead character, Zark, in “Zarkana,” the Cirque du Soleil show at Aria. “You don’t understand what people are saying onstage, but your ears hear something and go, ‘Oh, OK.’ Like an instrument. It’s cool because the audience can tell its own story in our show.”

The songs in “Zarkana” all are performed in this unspecific language. The approach to the anti-language reminds of how Andy Kaufman’s Latka Gravas character spoke in some unrecognized Slavic language, where “Ibi-da” was known to be both a greeting and affirmation.

Cirquespeak is not new. It is a language actually used in other Cirque shows (by the baby character in “Mystere” and by the creatures in the wings at “Ka”), but not to the degree it is employed in “Zarkana.”

Cirque’s first rock opera, “Zarkana” supplants “Viva Elvis,” which closed in August. “Viva Elvis” was performed entirely in English, of course, as was “Zarkana” in its original form at Radio City Music Hall in New York. But when the show was cut from 2 hours, 15 minutes to the 90-minute version you see onstage at Aria, English was dropped in favor of Cirquespeak.

Bisson says the language is more than just a way to infuse vocal instrumentation to the show. It is vital to the pacing and precision of the production to understand what is being sung to execute scene and set changes. Thus, there is a script the cast needs to learn and follow to keep all the show’s components in order.

“It was important the lyrics were really written and followed because so many cues for stage management that require you to end on a certain word,” Bisson says. “You sing this or say that, and it will cue the drop of the curtain.”

The language has often been mistaken for Spanish, Italian, Russian and French. Bisson, a native of Montreal, speaks in a deep French accent. “Zarkana” is not his first foray on a Las Vegas stage. In 1999, he opened “Notre Dame de Paris” at Paris Las Vegas, portraying Quasimodo.

Bisson says there was little room for inventive language adjustments in “Notre Dame,” a show that was seen as a bit dark for the Strip anyway. Of the use of an entirely foreign language in “Zarkana,” he jokes, “The benefit is, if you forget your line you can improvise and nobody would know.”

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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