Stage Door Review

Las Vegas, NV: Kà

Sunday, January 15, 2012

✭✭✭✭✭

written and directed by Robert Lepage

Cirque du Soleil, MGM Grand

February 3, 2005-open ended run

Give a theatrical genius like Robert Lepage about $220 million in funds, a purpose-built theatre and a purpose-built stage and the result is , perhaps the most spectacular work of narrative theatre ever created.  This is what Cirque du Soleil and MGM Mirage did to create a resident show for the MGM Grand in Las Vegas that opened in 2005.  Of the seven Cirque du Soleil shows currently running in Las Vegas at the time of writing, this is one that should be on everyone’s list.

Cirque du Soleil shows have tended to organize their various circus acts either by theme or by narrative.  Dralion (1999) gathered acts together primarily related to Chinese acrobatics and Robert Lepage’s own recent Totem (2010) arranged various acts according to a general theme of evolution.  Other shows like Quidam (1996) and Koozå (2007) emphasize a narrative in which a character enters the dreamworld represented by the circus to experience a sense of play that helps restore the real world when she or he re-enters it at the end.   is the apotheosis of the blend of narrative and circus arts.  Here circus arts rarely appear for their own sake but rather to make important points in the story.  In fact, you become so caught up in the story that you sometimes have to remind yourself that circus arts are being used tell it. 

The title of the show refers to one of the five elements that according to the ancient Egyptians made up the soul.  The “ka” is the vital spark that causes a person to be alive.  In Robert Lepage’s scenario--basically a reverse history of the gunpowder--the ka of the soul is threatened by an opposite fire that causes death.  The show thus opposes not just good and evil but the fire of life versus the fire of death and in its physical presentation, the solidity of the world we know versus the void. 

Except for a spoken prologue that sets up the general story, there is no dialogue in Kà, so that the circus artists have to be expert in their own skill as well as mime to communicate the story.  In a world that resembles a vision of mythic China with influences from Korea and Japan, a royal barge carries the Twins (Cheri Tabushi Pham Haight as the Brother and Jennifer Kimberly Pham Haight as the Sister) to a celebration in their honour hosted by their regal parents.  The Twins and others demonstrate their skill in traditional Chinese martial arts, the Court enacts traditional Chinese opera, while the Court Jester (Stéphane Fiossonangaye) demonstrates the highly acrobatic Brazilian martial art of capoeira.  The celebration is the first and last time acts appear as acts.  Without warning Archers and Spearmen attack the celebration and kill the Emperor and Empress.

The Twins and some of the court flee in a boat, but The Twin Brother is thrown off and rescued by the Court Jester.   A storm ensues rocking the boat and rendering the mast a swing pole from which acrobats are flung into the sea.  The boat capsizes and the Twin Sister dives into the sea.  We switch to an underwater view and see  the Twin Sister “swim” from above the proscenium to the very bottom, to rescue her comic Nursemaid (Gail Gilbert).  The story traces various travails of the Twins to find each other.  Meanwhile the evil Counselor (Jörg Lemke) and his Son (Spencer Novich), who instigated the attacks, celebrate their victory.  The Counselor’s son shows off the model of a diabolical machine he has invented that grinds human bones together with a magic ore to create an explosive powder.  The Son hopes this impresses the Chief Archer’s Daughter (Noriko Takahashi), whom he hopes to marry, but instead it revolts her.

Though the Twins encounter constant danger, they each also encounter love.  After his capture by the Archers, the Twin Brother and the Chief Archer’s Daughter fall in love at first sight.  She expresses her happiness by twirling two batons resembling the emblematic flutes they both carry.  After the Twin Sister tumbles from a fantastic human-powered flying machine, she falls into a tall forest inhabited by numerous flying Forest Creatures (acrobats on bungee cords or straps) and she and her rescuer, the Firefly Boy (Ivan Mokrousov), also fall in love.  The demonstration of their feelings is an exquisitely choreographed duet for the two on aerial straps.   

The story reaches a climax when the Counsellor’s Son gives a demonstration of a full-scale version of his machine, which incorporates as it main component the circus apparatus known as the Wheel of Death--two cylinders on either end of a giant rotating arm.  Two Slave Valets (Francisco and Sabu Alegria) are meant to run hamster-like inside each cylinder and thus power the rotating arm, but rather than merely staying inside the two huge drums, the Slave Valets jump outside them and turn their work into a breathtaking demonstration of their freedom.  This, in turn, inspires rebellion among the Counselor’s people and, as one might expect, the show concludes with an epic battle between the forces of good and evil.  Thus, Lepage not only skillfully integrates circus arts into the narrative but uses them to move the action forward.

The experience of the show begins when you enter the 1950-seat theatre.  Round wooden lookout towers with connecting bridges line the two sides of the theatre and look very much like the forest homes of the Ewoks in Star Wars.  While the theatre has a proscenium it looks into what seems empty space.  From this void rises the Royal Barge that pitches, rolls, yaws and gradually turns around 360˚.  This is all possible because the barge rests on the prime technical innovation of the entire show--a floating stage.  The platform is 25×50×6 feet and when level with the lower lip of the proscenium is 51 feet above the bottom of the pit.  A stage floating above such a void creates a sense of constant danger.  Characters are frequently pitched off the edge to disappear from view.  In one comic but scary sequence the two Comic Valets (Jason Hardabura and Jason Zulauf) are playing with various sea creatures on a beach when the platform begins tilting and the sand starts cascading over its upstage edge into the pit finally taking the two terrified clowns along with in. 

There is a second moving deck, usually located behind the larger deck, which is 30-by-30-feet.  By means known only to engineer Mai McLaren the two decks can amazingly move in front of, behind, above or below each other.  Even more amazingly, hydraulics for the largest deck can raise or lower it 72 feet, rotate it and then tilt it to past 90˚.  The deck is used in this configuration, the rectangle with its short side at the bottom, for some of the most spectacular scenes.  For the show’s climactic battle it tilts 100˚ away from the audience with twelve characters flown in front of it.  It gives us the fantastic impression of seeing Chinese wire-fighting from a wuxia movie from above.

It’s impossible to say what sections of the show are the most impressive.  The Wheel of Death act is just as nerve-wracking to watch here as it was in Koozå.  The aerial straps duet between the Twin Sister and the Firefly Boy is probably the most beautiful of its kind that I’ve seen.  But as for scenes that are truly phenomenal and that I’ve never before witnessed in the theatre, I’d have to choose Scenes 7 and 9, called “The Climb” and “The Flight”.  In Scene 7, the Twin Sister, Nursemaid and Comic Valets climb a steep cliff (the floating stage in upright position) with the Archers and Spearmen in close pursuit.  As they climb they have to avoid the arrows that continually hit the cliff face (actually pegs bursting from the deck surface).  When they and their pursuers climbs the arrows can become handholds but when they slip or fall the arrows function as uneven parallel bars in gymnastics so that some falls into the abyss look like human pinballs banging from pin to pin before they disappear.

In Scene 9, all four of the good characters have made it safely to the top where they meet a fur-clad Mountain Tribe.  When danger approaches again, the Mountain Tribe transforms their teepee into a fantastical human-powered flying machine that launches from the top of the upturned deck and soars directly over the audience while the Twin Sister struggles to hold onto the hands of a Tribesman hanging from a fixed trapeze.

Yet, Lepage knows precisely how to pace the show, how to let us catch our breath between edge-of-your-seat thrills.  One of the most charming interludes is a scene between the Twin Brother and the Court Jester where the two simply make shadow figures, thus taking us back to one of the earliest forms of human storytelling.

is like seeing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon live mixed with elements of the first part of Lord of the Rings.  After the thrill of live theatre, you just won’t feel like seeing an action-adventure movie with CGI for a very long time.  3D is all very well, but nothing can beat the real 3D that is live theatre.  For people who would not normally consider travelling to Las Vegas, worth the trip to see it.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photo: (top) The Battle Begins. © 2005 Tomas Muscionico; (middle) Forest Duet © 2005 Jerry Metellus.

For tickets, visit: www.cirquedusoleil.com.