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.
One thing after another amazes. Fire is a theme, its dual role as a force of illumination and destruction, and the stage is often brazenly aflame in what would appear in defiance of all fire laws. Another law defied, as is always the case with Cirque, is that of gravity. The cast is large and typically astonishing, full of performers able to make the human body do what should be impossible. That is the heart of the circus, and the best use of technology in "Ka" is when it enhances the art of these performers. One exquisite example is when the twin sister and her nursemaid plunge in the depth and rise to the surface, flying great heights through video projections of water. It was nice, as well, to be occasionally reminded of low-tech devices, such as the shadow puppets and a slapstick starfish, which offered respites from the otherwise persistent action.
But the overall impression is one of overload. There are so many details in the costumes, in the props, in the video productions and in the movement that get lost because the scale is so large. From my seat, a reasonable distance from the stage, everyone looked miniature.
And the special effects can get pushy when tied to heavy-handed, over-amplified sound effects. In fact, this show, with its zillion-amp, super-multichannel sound system, is often sonically offensive. Where there are a seemingly infinite variety to the visual nuances, a grubby-sounding fuzz guitar represents a solo wooden flute at one point, large Tibetan-style horns at another. A trite melody first heard on solo cello to accompany dazzling baton twirling soon turns into synthesized overkill that sours an otherwise sweet scene.
In the end, the scale of "Ka" does excite. It includes so many different movement traditions, so many different cultures, so many different kinds of creative forces, so many clever people given all the resources that they could possibly imagine, so much fire, that it would take several viewings to appreciate its many levels. It is a show meant to last 10 years, and it probably will. MGM Grand has already begun the branding -- even the room keys are "Ka"-coded.
But the scale of this grand spectacle is both humanizing and dehumanizing. Amid the onslaught of technology, the eye hungrily hunts for anything less than perfect. Mine found it when an acrobat looked unsteady for a second or two jumping rope on the torturous Wheel of Death. Worried, I suddenly cared about nothing else on stage. There are some things that money can't buy.
Where: MGM Grand, 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. South, Las Vegas
When: 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Fridays-Tuesdays
Contact: (702) 796-9999, (877) 264-1844, www.mgmgrand.com
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes