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Epic, extravagant

In 'Ka' the acrobatics and dazzling special effects are stunning -- and enchanting.

February 05, 2005|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Las Vegas — Money doesn't talk in this town. It screams, it hums, it ululates, it whistles "Dixie," it sings a coloratura aria at stratospheric tessitura.

To look like a million bucks is not impressive, especially if you are a show. To look like $200 million is more like it. That is what "Ka," the latest extravaganza from Cirque du Soleil, is said to have cost (the official price tag is $165 million). It opened at the MGM Grand on Thursday night, and it is spectacular, as any high roller with eyes and ears, $150 for a ticket and the connections to get a decent seat will readily discover.

Indeed, this show, which is also said to need around $1 million weekly to operate, may well be the most lavish production in the history of Western theater. It is surely the most technologically advanced. And it will undoubtedly do what it is intended to do, namely draw people into the hotel, where a casino and expensive shops and restaurants are keen to remove additional quantities of cash from its customers.

But "Ka" is meant to be more than a thrill-ride shill. The ambitions of Quebec's arty-circus-turned-empire are enormous. Conceived, written and directed by the sometimes avant-garde Canadian theater, film and opera director Robert Lepage, "Ka" attempts not only to redefine the Cirque du Soleil formula of daring acrobatics and sophisticated clownery presented in visually stunning and slightly mysterious settings, but also to redefine the possibilities of theater itself.

While retaining Cirque's trademark acrobatic daring, Lepage integrates more traditional theatrical and dance elements, along with the phenomenal special effects, to tell a narrative on an epic visual scale. It is not theater, however, that Cirque here creates as much as the environment of theater.

Superficially, Ka is the story of the Imperial Twins, masters of Chinese martial arts who are separated in a shipwreck, attacked by the Archers and Spearmen, have adventures among the Mountain Tribe and Forest People, overcome the Wheel of Death, and lead a victorious battle. If that sounds simple-minded, it is. The narrative, even with all its pretentious symbolism (ka, we are told, is the Egyptian concept of spiritual duality), operates in the way the narrative does in a porno film, as an excuse for the action.

But given the sheer extravagance of "Ka," even this simple story is not simple enough, and it hardly registers. What does register, and register in a big way, is the richly detailed world that the story evokes. Rich, in fact, barely begins to describe it.

The first element of "Ka" is the theater, created for the show. Designed by Mark Fisher (best known for designing rock shows), it feels larger than a 1,950-seat venue, in part because the stage, or more accurately the deep pit where a stage should be, is so huge. The scale here suggests a theatrical equivalent to IMAX. Acrobats can certainly fly high, and in the pit are two stages, or platforms, that perform their own mechanical acrobatics, assuring that the show will always be in motion.

Still, the strange thing about "Ka" is that while movement is continual, relentless even, especially when driven by the excruciatingly loud and usually vulgar rock score by longtime Cirque collaborator Rene Dupere, what amazes are the tableaux. A jungle scene, populated by fabulous insects and reptiles created by puppeteer Michael Curry and operated by amazing contortionists, and brought to life by acrobats swinging on ropes, is so enthralling that it gives magic, in the relation to stage effects, new meaning.

Watching acrobats dangerously work the Wheel of Death, which looks like something the artist Marcel Duchamp might have dreamed up after a particularly nasty nightmare, continues to haunt me.

There is joy in much of the movement throughout "Ka," movement inspired by various traditions including Chinese opera and martial arts and Brazilian Capoeira.

The flying machine manipulated by the Mountain People returns human air travel to the realm of poetry that frequent fliers no longer remember. Enchanting are the contortionist crabs that pop out of a sandy beach; enchanting even is the sand itself, when tons of it fall into the pit as the stage platform turns 90 degrees.

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