‘Ka’

See "Ka" again to remind yourself of the promise Las Vegas entertainment held in 2005.

The sky’s-the-limit mentality wasn’t confined to high-rise condos and CityCenter. It also was clear that with Cirque du Soleil’s checkbook pointing the way, the Strip’s ability to custom-build a title was going to lead to some amazing places.

After "Ka" showed us a stage no longer burdened by gravity, what was next? Strapping the whole audience to a motion simulator?

Alas, Cirque’s Asian-fantasy epic set a high-water mark. With an admitted budget of $165 million — insiders say it went north of $200 million — "Ka" remains the costliest title on the Strip. "Love" came in at about $150 million in 2006, before the economy turned south. Last year, Cirque chairman Guy Laliberte made one thing clear about the upcoming Elvis show at CityCenter: It will be "very tight with the budget."

So you’d think "Ka" would be the city’s flagship. But most locals rank it at least third behind "Love" and "O," and it seems to inspire a "love it or hate it" reaction.

Here’s the acid test. The stagecraft creates a ship bobbing like a cork during a storm at sea, with characters flung overboard. One is the nursemaid (played by both Gail Gilbert and Jeana Blackman) of one of the twins at the center of the action. When the twin (Jennifer Haight) dives to the rescue, the action cuts like a movie, showing the two in the murky ocean depths, the twin rescuing the nanny to the wistful strains of violin and piano.

High-wire acrobatics are involved, to be sure; the performers dangle in front of a 90-foot video wall. But the trickery is in service of the illusion. This is Cirque’s first attempt at linear storytelling, cross-cutting between the separated twins on parallel adventures. If it works for you, then you are in sync with director Robert Lepage’s grand opera sensibility. (He’s now updating Wagner’s Ring cycle for the Metropolitan Opera.)

"Ka" has been saddled with the reputation for being confusing and/or pretentious. The accusations have merit, though "pretentious" can be a good thing and the confusion has been worked on.

It’s now easier to tell the twins apart, and an aerial adagio — very old-school Cirque — has been added to emphasize that romance blooms between the female twin and a Tarzan-like jungle prince (Pierre-Luc Sylvain). (It came at the expense of a stump-jumping sequence that was perhaps too hard on the knees 10 times a week.)

Still, the biggest problem with "Ka" was apparent just by stepping into the theater for a recent re-visit.

It is, in fact, the theater.

It’s beautiful but too wide, the aisles too gently sloping. If you sit in sections 201, 202 and 203, behind the central dividing aisle, you aren’t going to see the faces that are more crucial to this title than "O," where the audience is similarly distanced.

"Love" corrected this mistake, with in-the-round staging making it clear how much more nuance would carry if the audience were closer.

"Ka" still offers things you won’t see anywhere else in the world. The main stage turns out to be movable, lifted into various positions by an unseen gantry arm. It tilts for a chase on a "mountainside," where the pursuers are sent sliding into the abyss below when they can’t grab the pegs that snap up or vanish in an instant.

It’s covered with sand (or some facsimile) for an amusing scene in which shipwrecked characters interact with beach-creature puppets created by Michael Curry of "Lion King" fame. When the scene ends, the stage simply tilts to dump the sand.

And at the end, the stage goes completely vertical for a climactic battle that allows us to watch from overhead. Again, if you buy into the illusion, you can forget about the technology. (If not, you can try to figure out how so many people can leap around in midair without getting their guide wires crossed.)

For all the big moments, from a flying machine to an acrobat running on top of a giant wheel, LePage still gets a big reaction from two characters making shadow puppets. It puts the technology in perspective, and is, ironically, one of the few moments of theater magic that carries all the way to the back row.

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

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