The Recipe Paradox

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

You know, when you're cooking a favorite recipe, how it sometimes just doesn't come out right. You followed the directions. It's all the same ingredients but something just didn't gel, or it didn't rise, it fell flat. And it's a mystery.

Theater can be like that. All the same ingredients and sometimes it's a masterpiece and other times . . . meh.

Cirque du Soleil's latest show, Kurios, repeats their favorite recipe and manages to recapture the magic.

Now if you've seen the last couple of Cirque shows to make it through LA or the short-lived Hollywood residency you'd be right to be a little skeptical. Those shows fell flat. Paradoxically because they followed the recipe too closely and it became about the recipe not about the meal.

What's intriguing is all the Cirque shows have basically the same ingredients. You've got the contortionists, the acrobats, the arealists, some juggling, live music and some clowning. More than most theater, it's a puzzle of how to fit those pieces together and thread some conceptual through-line through the whole evening so it feels less like a series of acts and more like one event.

What their shows always have going for them are the remarkable technical feats. You can't help but respect the sheer physicality and training of these performers. When someone's dangling from a rope 20 feet in the air by one hand, or when someone lands on the shoulders of the guy who's already standing on the shoulders of a guy - your jaw drops.

What's always distinguished Cirque du Soleil shows is not resting just on the laurels and physicality of circus but approaching it like theater. What separates a great Cirque show from a just so-so one is that conceptual wrapper.

For Kurios that wrapper is a steam-punk aesthetic. Think hipster retro: bare Edison bulbs, brass fittings, exposed gears, and a mad travelling scientist. It's fertile visual territory.

In the past couple of shows, the concept has felt more important than the entertainment: the idea of an insect egg had to be mined for every last bit of metaphor. The most important part of the Kurios concept is that they don't work too hard to make sense of it.

With Kurios there's a wonderful emphasis on energy and entertainment. You can almost hear the director saying "make it pretty and make it fun -- I don't care what it all means." And it works. The clowns are free to clown and don't have to work too hard on providing the interstitial glue for the big idea.

Kurios is the best Cirque show to make it through LA in years. It's also a great lesson in following a recipe, especially at the holidays: don't forget the goal is for everyone to enjoy themselves.

Kurios plays in the circus tent outside Dodger's Stadium downtown through February 7.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes with a 25 minute intermission.

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Photo: Martin Girard