Monday, Dec. 15, 2008 | 2 a.m.
IF YOU GO
What: “Ka” by Cirque du Soleil
When: 7 and 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday
Where: “Ka” Theatre at MGM Grand
Admission: $34.50-$150 ($75.90-$150 Dec. 23-Jan. 3); 531-2000, www.mgmgrand.com
Running time: 90 minutes
During December, Sun critic Joe Brown is visiting and revisiting every Cirque du Soleil show on the Strip. His reviews will appear on Mondays in the Las Vegas Sun and at www.lasvegassun.com.
Next week: “Zumanity” at New York-New York
Beyond the Sun
What would contemporary Las Vegas be without Cirque du Soleil?
Fortunately we don’t have to dwell on that dreary thought. The Strip is home to five enduring resident shows (and one dud), and crowning them is “Ka,” Cirque’s most epic entertainment, which added heroic adventure and cinematic scale to the Cirque canon.
When it opened at the MGM Grand in 2005, “Ka” marked another stunning technological and artistic advance from Cirque, which had turned the showbiz world on its ear with the aquatic opus “O.”
Combining visual and thematic elements from Japanese anime and manga comics, Flash Gordon and “The Lord of the Rings,” massive multiplayer games and mixed martial arts, “Ka” takes the SFX techniques of movie blockbusters and makes them come alive on stage, in every imaginable dimension, two shows a night. “Ka’s” panoply of jaw-dropping, heart-stirring effects and imagery was surpassed only by the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics.
All of these effects serve a story, and “Ka” is the one Cirque show where it’s really important to know what’s going on. Here’s a sketch of the story:
A pair of royal twins, brother and sister, are celebrated by the court at a pageant, when the court is attacked by a band of marauding archers and spearmen. They attempt to flee in a boat, but are separated during a storm at sea, and in their quest for reunion, they confront characters and events representing the opposing forces of good and evil. The main villain, it should be noted, has invented a diabolic machine (it looks like a multilevel hamster wheel) that grinds bones to unleash firepower.
Audiences are immersed in “Ka’s” otherworldly experience from the moment of entry. Ticket takers are costumed as ragtag gypsies or pirates and remain in character. Ten minutes before the performance begins, a pair of performers play an enormous harp suspended over the lobby, coaxing beauty from a web of strings. Try not to miss this.
And leave time to take in the majesty of the “Ka” theater, the most splendid of the Cirque showcases. Glowing in amber light, burnished bronze fittings and weathered wood, it looks at once ancient and modern, as if Jules Verne had drawn up architectural plans for a sea- or space-going vessel.
The open stage is a gaping abyss, filled with fog and belching seriously startling fireballs, which hover in the air. You will feel the heat. One of the “Ka” characters delivers the most effective “turn off your cell phone” warning in theater history.
The opening of the show is deceptively serene and distanced. A royal barge introduces the characters, then melts into a stylized procession and pageant, a stylized mix of Bjork videos and Japanese theater.
This happy scene is stalked by marauders (you may find one crouching next to you). Suddenly, arrows fly, the stage goes up in flames, and we’re plunged into our tale.
Facing villainy in the form of a mad scientist and warriors who look like grown-up Mutant Ninja Turtles, the twins’ episodic adventures take them from a violently rocking ship (one of Cirque’s most inventive set pieces to date) to the depths of the sea, from a supersized jungle to an icy aerie at the pinnacle of an arctic mountain.
And that brings us to the central innovation that makes “Ka’s” most impossible moments possible. Cirque has created an enormous hydraulic stage platform, which rotates 360 degrees, from level to perpendicularly vertical. This stage will enable an ocean rescue, a cascade of sand, and an awe-inspiring aerial ballet on a vertical wall that outdoes video game graphics and CGI special effects.
It’s hard to pull off a movie-style chase scene on a static stage, but “Ka” solves that — even outdoing the movies — sending characters clambering up a sheer rock face and an icy cliff, dodging a rain of arrows and bouncing off the wall like balls in a giant pachinko game.
Set to a live score that haunts but really rocks, too, “Ka” was created and directed by Robert Lepage, and his visions are poetically hyperrealistic, with a bold theatricality recalling Martha Clarke’s Boschian “Garden of Earthly Delights” and Robert Wilson’s “The Black Rider.”
It’s safe to say you won’t soon forget many of these truly dangerous-seeming images — or the explosive finale.
Yet amid all this spectacle there are quiet, subtle moments — a poignant bit of shadow puppetry, a sweetly comic dance by seashore creatures, a breath-stopping baton-twirling dance— that may remain with you longer.
It’s this cherishing of these simplest of theatrical elements that is the essence of Cirque shows.
And you can see them only in Las Vegas.