Saturday, February 6, 2010

Robert Lepage at SFU Woodward's

Tai Wei Foo in Robert Lepage and Marie Michaud's The Blue Dragon

This past Thursday night Richard and I were back at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre at SFU Woodward’s to take in the English-language Vancouver premiere of Robert Lepage’s The Blue Dragon, a special theatrical event that is being co-sponsored by my university, the 2010 Cultural Olympiad, and Théâtre la Seizième (there will be a few performances in French). The Blue Dragon, which Lepage wrote with his co-star Marie Michaud (the English translation is by Michael Mackenzie), is both a sequel and a coda to The Dragon’s Trilogy, Lepage’s first great theatrical success. A six-hour extravaganza that premiered in 1985, The Dragon’s Trilogy tells the stories of childhood friends Jeanne and Françoise, giving us, in the process, glimpses of three different Canadian Chinatowns over the course of the twentieth century, beginning in Quebec City from 1910-35 (the green dragon), moving to Toronto during the 40s and 50s (the red dragon), and ending in Vancouver in 1985 (the white dragon), where we are introduced to Françoise’s son, Pierre Lamontagne, who runs an art gallery and dreams of visiting the real China. The Blue Dragon picks up the story twenty years later. Pierre (played by Lepage) has indeed made it to China, where he now runs a gallery in Shanghai, benefiting from a red-hot Chinese art market but also having to contend with multiple layers of government bureaucracy, corruption and censorship. Pierre’s personal life is just as complicated: embroiled in a tempestuous affair with a younger Chinese artist, Xia Ling (the dancer Tai Wei Foo), whom he has gotten pregnant just as her career is about to take off, he also comes face to face with a ghost from his past in the form of former lover Claire (Michaud), who has come to China in part because she wants to adopt a baby. On top of all this, during the course of the play Pierre learns that his father has died back in Quebec, prompting some intense soul-searching about whether or not he should return home for good.

In Connecting Flights, a collection of interviews with journalist Rémy Charest, Lepage has described the character of Pierre Lamontagne as his “alter ego,” a “linking character” who makes connections between the various threads of Lepage’s theatrical and cinematic narratives, and between those narratives and the audience: “He’s all-purpose because he is relatively young and an artist, which allows us to place him almost anywhere, in almost any circumstances. He’s a very flexible, very mobile character—a blank character, in a way. He provides the link between the story and the audience. His naïve approach towards the events he encounters reflects the spectator’s position.” However, Lepage also admits that “over the course of his incarnations, the character [of Pierre] developed a few inconsistencies.” Not the least of which are the narrative gaps in an ever-expanding and ever-more complicated fictional biography subject to the temporal discontinuities and spatial contiguities that are a hallmark of Lepage’s theatre and cinema in equal measure. But then narrative has arguably never been Lepage’s strong suit, and it should come as no surprise that Pierre, as a passing-through character more acted upon than acting, a cipher in flight from a past that nevertheless has a strange and persistent way of catching up with him, should, like his creator, spend so much time in airports, where all sense of time and space collapses in on itself in an endless succession of arrivals and departures. To this end, those readers familiar with Lepage’s first film, Le confessionnal, will likely have registered a degree of confusion about the plot of The Blue Dragon, and particularly the bit about Pierre’s father, as in the earlier film it is Pierre returning from Beijing in 1989 to bury his dad that sets in motion the unraveling of a long suppressed family mystery concerning unacknowledged paternity and abject maternity.

Feckless fathers and morbid mothers are a recurring theme in Lepage’s work, and we get them in abundance in The Blue Dragon, which presents us with three different endings concerning who among the three main characters assumes primary responsibility for Xia Ling’s baby. That none of these endings is particularly affecting—nor, in one case, even remotely plausible—stems from characters so sketchily drawn and for the most part emotionally lifeless that we never form strong connections with them or their stories. Combined with almost torpid pacing, it made for one of the more unsatisfying theatrical experiences of a Lepage show in recent memory. All of his trademark visual effects were featured in abundance (the projected calligraphy and falling snow being the most stunning), but owing perhaps to its hybrid status between his more well-known solo shows and large-cast, multi-hour epics, The Blue Dragon left me mostly cold.


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