Acrobatics and Comedy Wow New York Audiences

Two shows prove the power of good entertainment

Cirque du Soleil -- Alegra

At the Big Top in Battery Park City, New York.

As audiences around the world have discovered, the Cirque du Soleil is a new breed of circus, one that has revolutionized the form by introducing a seamless theatricality to its presentation. Devoid of animals and not especially geared to children, Cirque du Soleil is a circus for people who don't like ''the circus''; it is a three-ring extravaganza for sophisticates.

Now 11 years old, Cirque du Soleil is presently engaged in a North American tour of its latest, and eighth production, ''Alegria'' -- a Spanish word expressing elation and exhilaration. Currently playing in New York, in a giant heated tent in Battery Park City, the troupe will later perform in such cities as Toronto, Chicago, Boston, Washington, and Atlanta.

For someone who has seen Cirque du Soleil several times, the concept may be wearing a bit thin. ''Alegria,'' more than most of their shows, seems a bit too heavy on music and atmosphere and a little light on quality acts. But even if this show is not one of their best, it is still one of the most entertaining ways to spend an evening.

The highlights among the acts: Elena Lev, a contortionist who does maneuvers with hula hoops that will either dramatically increase their sales or get them banned in North America; Mikhail Matorin (unofficially known as the Russian Fabio), whose aerial ballet and juggling of a huge metal cube seem to raise the temperature in the tent; Slava Polunin, Dmitry Bogatirev, and Serguei Chachelev, three clowns imported from the Moscow Circus, who keep the laughter going nonstop; the two nine-year-old Mongolian contortionists, whose bodies seem to combine into a single organism; and the Flying Lev, Russian aerialists who perform a spectacular series of gravity-defying maneuvers and stunning acrobatics.

Go and be amazed.

Rob Becker -- Defending the Caveman

At the Helen Hayes Theater.

With ''Defending the Caveman,'' comedian Rob Becker has exploited the trend of developing thematically related material into a theatrical presentation instead of a mere stand-up act. he has also cleverly tapped into the national Zeitgeist by exploring the ever-relevant war between the sexes. The result is a one-man show that has wowed audiences in such cities as San Francisco, Chicago, and Washington.

Much of Becker's material involves the same old stereotypes regarding the differences between men and women (men don't like to ask for directions and have an obsession with the TV remote control; women like to talk), but he has dressed them up in a pseudo-anthropological exploration, relating our current difficulties to tendencies that have been passed down from our prehistoric ancestors.

It seems that men were hunters (they had spears), women were gatherers (they had baskets), and, well, the problems started right there.

Becker, dressed in blue jeans and a ratty T-shirt, is the perfect picture of a regular guy, which lends his observations a suitably authentic air. What makes the material work so well, and which no doubt is responsible for the show's success among both men and women (it is being heavily marketed to couples), is its lack of mean-spiritedness.

The comedian makes his observations calmly and humorously and manages not to alienate either sex while still poking nearly continuous fun. Even when hissed by some women in the audience, he manages to deftly turn things his way. And the men in the audience will particularly appreciate Becker's efforts to explain things on their behalf.

This is a show that might actually start some helpful conversations.

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