Monday, December 03, 2007

KÀ in Las Vegas: Videogame as Theatre?


I just got back from Vegas this weekend, my first time there. Naturally I'd heard all about some amazing Cirque du Soleil shows there, like "O", "Mystere", and "Zumanity," but when I got there, my native Las Vegan friends told me they loved a newer show called "KĄ".

Well, they couldn't have picked a better show for me to see.

Imagine if you will a multi-story tall auditorium stage that appears to have no bottom, out of which a myriad of theatrical environments emerge. A ship atop a stormy sea. A sandy beach. A monstrously high cliff. A wall for shadow puppets. Battlefields. A forest. Or, during the pre-show, intermittent bursts of flame. To the left and right are illuminated copper cage towers. Think H.G. Wells meets Ewok tree condos on Endor.

Of course there are the Cirque trademarks -- dancers, acrobats, twirlers, and people flying through the air. (If you have not seen a Cirque show, go rent Mystere, Quidam, or Dralion and come back. Or better yet, go see Varekai or whatever tour is out there now live) There is the fantastic music. Though in KÀ, the music is blended with extravagant sound effects, playing through speakers in everyone's seats. But this is the first of their Vegas shows to have a plot*, albeit a relatively simple one. Two twins are kidnapped and must be rescued across varied landscapes full of strange creatures and peoples.

Hmm. Sound videogame-esque? We'll touch on that shortly.

Unbeknownst to me while I was watching it, the Cirque du Soleil troupe brought in two of my theatrical heroes, Robert Le Page and Michael Curry to work on it, as director and puppet fabricator respectively. I wrote a review of Robert's amazing earlier work "The Far Side of the Moon" back in 2001 and got to talk with him a little about how he was experimenting with moving set technology and puppets. Of course, Michael Curry is the genius behind the Lion King Musical puppets, masks, and its morphing cliff stage.

The fusion of all these talents adds up to an unbelievable, jaw-dropping, almost indescribable experience. However, I think I've stumbled upon the right analogy here, although please don't assume I mean to undermine its theatricality in any way: KÀ is part live-action, ultra-high production value videogame sequence, part Cirque du soleil show, part martial arts.

To make my point, here is the state-of-the-art in camera-oriented videogames Super Mario Galaxy for the Wii™:



Now picture something along these lines, right in front of you, live with human beings, scaled to the size of a good-sized hotel. (Ok, not a giant orb spinning but I wouldn't put it past these guys to do something like that next time.) A giant spinning rectangular plane. Two, actually, both acting as stages so capable of transforming they might as well be virtual.

In a sense, KÀ really is part videogame with its use of real-time, tracked projected animations. The larger of the two stages in KÀ is not limited to physical texture, thanks to a clever use of computer vision and projection techniques. It becomes a cliff, or the dark sea with bubbles following a diving actor. Through the combination of this and flying rigs, the stage becomes more like the eye of the camera, with moves previously reserved for Film and now videogames.

Will this make good theatre? Or just another technological exercise like the motion captured, virtual camera move-fests of recent Zemeckis films like The Polar Express and Beowulf? We will see.

Coming soon, I'll try to go into more detail about how this technology works and how it will change live theatre.

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posted by Brian at 5:41 PM

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