Theater review: ‘Iris’ by Cirque du Soleil at the Kodak Theatre

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If the flights from Los Angeles to Las Vegas seem slightly less crowded these days, don’t take it as a sign that we’re in a double-dip recession. Cirque du Soleil, the alt-circus company out of Quebec that has grown into a global entertainment phenomenon so lucrative it may be asked to bail out Greece, has set up shop at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, making the trip to see Mystère, Viva Elvis or one of the other Cirque attractions nestled in a casino a little less necessary.

Fittingly, “Iris,” the new $100-million extravaganza that opened Sunday after a summer run of previews, is a love letter to the art and science of cinema. Unfolding at the venue that hosts the Academy Awards, the show is subtitled “A Journey Through the World of Cinema.” But please don’t misread this as “A Stroll Through Classic Hollywood.” This is a celebration of the imagination of filmmaking through a circus sensibility, which similarly wants to escape the mundane through the fantasy of limitless possibility.


Before we tackle the aesthetics of the production (cunningly packaged with just enough daredevil razzmatazz to keep audiences from minding some of the goofy dead spots), let’s acknowledge the economic effect of what amounts to a glitzy private-sector stimulus for local businesses. The show, bound to be a major tourist magnet, has already been persuading middle-class hordes to throw credit card caution to the wind. Although the $253 price of VIP tickets is enough to make you queasy, there’s something agreeable about having this movie-themed colossus, kinetically scored by composer Danny Elfman, permanently installed in the heart of Hollywood.

The subject is a natural one for the company. Motion pictures, when you get right down to it, are what Cirque du Soleil has always specialized in. Tableaux that shrink and surge, twist and tumble are its stock in trade. And as with film, the visual image reigns supreme, even if this French-Canadian style of circus goes in a chimerical direction that’s quite a departure from your standard multiplex fare. (Why was that woman wearing a fern where her hair should be, you might find yourself asking? For that matter, what are those antlers doing on that strapping fellow happily prancing about like an uprooted oak?) Directed by Philippe Decouflé, a French choreographer and dancer making his Cirque du Soleil debut, the production often appears to be transforming itself into a Busby Berkeley revue. But before the musical momentum can crescendo, the piece returns to its circus roots with a bit of clowning (probably the least effective part of the show) or some aerial acrobatics. The most ingenious moments pair human performers with their screen avatars, as when floating dancers have their shadows rapidly tracing their choreography.

While I’m no connoisseur of Cirque du Soleil, which made its U.S. debut downtown in Little Tokyo in 1987 and has enjoyed, in the pre-show words of founder Guy Laliberté, “an amazing love affair with Los Angeles,” I prefer the company’s stupendous athletic prowess to its artiste pretensions. (Give me ‘Kà’ over ‘Zumanity” any day!) “Iris” tries to split the difference and sometimes feels indecisive as a result. But when the cluttered stage picture calms down to focus on some transcendent physical feat or graceful multimedia maneuver, tired grownup eyes are instantly brightened with childlike curiosity.

Interactive graphic: Cirque du L.A.: ‘Iris’ at the Kodak Theatre

The first half of “Iris” concentrates on the shape-shifting magic of the camera. The thematic emphasis seems to be on the birth of a technology and its silent-film infancy. But it’s not easy to identify the figures that are hypnotizing you. These are hybrid organisms, bred by a surreal jokester determined to eradicate any trace of the human safety instinct.

Are those two identical-looking blond men with the smooth, muscular bodies twins or are they presenting a double image of masculine adventure as they swing through the air like ballet stars granted the ability to fly? Are those female contortionists piled on what looks to be a film canister rearranging themselves into different geometric shapes to symbolize the transmutation of light and sound into pictures or are they larvae hatching a new kind of insect? And what about those wacky bounders with the trampoline board — are they mad jesters on a Jillian Michaels suicide mission or might they be some crawling garden denizen, as their antennae suggest?

The second half of the show takes place on a film set, with a cast of characters out of some occult “Doctor Dolittle.” Elfman’s music, invoking at times an antic Tim Burton car chase through an otherworldly tunnel, intensifies the sense of coordinated pell-mell. There’s so much scurrying, soaring and undulating that I found myself muttering to myself at times, “This is a circus!” Forgive me for losing track of the obvious, but this is theater for those with the attention span of mosquitoes. Cirque audiences like to be distracted, but they also enjoy the opportunity of gazing on a wonderland. (Jean-François Bouchard, director of creation, and the entire design team have certainly succeeded in conjuring an endlessly surprising three-dimensional dreamscape for them.)

Decouflé not only staged this company-created effort but has also received writing credit. Yet let’s not be too quick to pin the dud clown show shenanigans on him. They have the loose, bumbling and improvisatory feel of collective authorship. (Full disclosure: Not even the old-fashioned Ringling Bros. men in pancake makeup and lipstick could get me to crack a smile as a kid.) There’s a parody of an award show competition that initially seems pitched to children, but then the humor takes a risqué turn suggesting that its real target is the vulgar brat lurking within every adult. Who knows? Better to focus on the charming saucer-eyed music man, who when not cartwheeling on his piano is falling in love with a woman who can defy gravity even more astonishingly than he can.

Before the pharmaceutical companies took over, movies were Americans’ drug of choice, the best remedy for the cares and woes of workaday life. “Iris” is a more luxurious elixir, but in paying homage to the fantasy of film, the show incarnates those same stardust properties that make movies so everlastingly potent.


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— Charles McNulty\charlesmcnulty

‘Iris” by Cirque du Soleil, Kodak Theatre, 6801 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) $43-$133 (VIP tickets are available at $253). or (877) 943-IRIS. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

Top and middle: ‘Iris’ by Cirque du Soleil at the Kodak Theatre. Credit: Michael Robinson Chavez/Los Angeles Times.