Thursday, November 8, 2012

Back to the Moon

Last night Richard and I were at the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre at SFU Woodward's for a sold-out performance of Robert Lepage's Far Side of the Moon, a co-production with Théâtre la Seizième, who together with the now departed Playhouse first brought the show to Vancouver back in 2003. That was, I believe, Lepage's first visit to the city since he toured here in the 1980s with The Dragon's Trilogy, but he's since been back with The Andersen Project (2005) and, most recently, The Blue Dragon, which was also mounted at SFU Woodward's as part of the Cultural Olympiad in 2010. And if the rumours are true of him buying a condo here, we may be seeing a whole lot more of him.

It was by no means certain that last night's performance would go ahead as scheduled. SFU is in the midst of labour disputes with two separate unions, CUPE (representing staff) and TSSU (representing sessional instructors and TAs), and picketing of the downtown campuses over the weekend had forced the cancellation of at least two performances of Yves Jacques' performances. A campus-wide picket had been called for yesterday. But with Lepage himself taking over the role starting this Tuesday, Michael Boucher, Director of Cultural Programs at SFU Woodward's, and the man most responsible for bringing the show back to Vancouver, was anxious to avoid further disturbances if at all possible. To that end, Ex Machina Producer Michel Bernatchez read a prepared statement from CUPE in advance of the performance indicating that, in fact, no further picketing of SFU Woodward's would take place for the duration of Far Side's run.

This was as much a relief to those of us at the PuSh Festival as it no doubt was to Boucher. For PuSh is a community partner on this production and last night's performance was a special "PuSh night," which in addition to allowing us to secure discounted seats for our loyal Festival patrons, also saw us distributing our 2013 Festival program guides to all members of the audience in advance of their official release throughout the city today. Great publicity for us, and for our own ongoing SFU Woodward's presence, which Executive Director Norman Armour rightly highlighted in his portion of the curtain speech.

And now onto the performance itself. Far Side has always struck me as one of Lepage's more successful solo shows, in part because its images and theatrical conceits are so stunning (a washing machine door that becomes a portal to space), and in part because it is so personal (about the relationship between two brothers, Philippe and André, in the wake of their mother's death, the play was written just after the death of Lepage's own mother). The play was also turned into a very successful film by Lepage, one that, if it--as it seems--remains his last, will stand as an excellent synthesis of several recurring themes in his work (a focus on doubles and Oedipal family dynamics, symbolic use of colour, screens-within-screens, etc.). Indeed, this current production of the play has, if memory serves correctly, been changed to accommodate several new scenes that come directly from the film and, as is increasingly the case with any new Lepage stage production (witness The Blue Dragon), projected credits at the top of the show emphasize the cinematic feel of this piece of theatre.

And yet, for all the various projected film excerpts of the American and Soviet space race and the high-tech mechanics of the set, some of the most effective bits in the play still come when Lepage reverts to the basics of theatre-making, as with the frequent use of puppets, or when he turns a simple prop like an ironing board into a gym bench press in one instance and a scooter in another. In these moments Lepage understands that in the theatre, unlike in the cinema, the audience needs to work with the performer to create the illusion.

Would that Lepage worked just a little bit harder with us to create the same kind of shared emotional intimacy. The man has always been a cool, almost affectless performer. No doubt this anti-spectacular acting style allows the spectacle of his staging to stand out. But in a show like this one--which is, after all, partly about grief--I longed for just a bit more intensity and, dare I say, energy. However, I certainly can't fault Lepage for the effort he puts into the amazing final scene, which combines all the best elements of his theatre into a singularly stunning, almost balletic image.

And speaking of ballet, Lepage will be in conversation with choreographer Crystal Pite at SFU Woodward's this evening, beginning at 5 pm. The two have collaborated on Lepage's staging of the opera of The Tempest, currently on at the Met in New York. Pite's own dance version of the Shakespeare play, The Tempest Replica, opens tomorrow at the Playhouse, the second show in DanceHouse's current season. And, as it happened, I was sitting beside Kidd Pivot dancer Sandra Garcia last night. She graciously let me gush about my admiration for the entire company's work. Which I look forward to immersing myself in once again this Saturday.


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