Robert Lepage, whose wondrously exotic production of The Nightingale & Other Short Fables is playing to sellout houses at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, has established himself in the last two decades as one of the phenomena of world theatre. He's a brave innovator with a wildly prodigious talent and a way of turning drama and opera into awe-inspiring spectacle. Canada has never before produced anyone even remotely like him -- a performer, author, stage director and impresario who consistently expands his idea of what can be done with a stage and an audience.
He's acquired a splendidly naive confidence in his style. He takes it for granted that just about any theme can be accommodated somewhere within his art, whether it's Hiroshima, the loneliness of immigrants, Frank Lloyd Wright or women forced into sexual slavery. He assumes that he and his corps of splendid collaborators can find the indelible imagery that will bring the subject to life.
Has there ever been a less provincial artist? He makes The Nightingale into a one-show multicultural experience. Audiences absorb Russian music (Stravinsky), Danish children's stories (Hans Christian Andersen's), puppets borrowed from the Bunraku tradition of Japan, royal Chinese images and shadow puppets developed in Indonesia. Lepage absorbs all of it within the personal, image-driven tradition of modern Quebec stage culture, the same culture that produced Cirque du Soleil, for which Lepage designed a permanent show in Las Vegas.
In the course of the evening a nightingale puppet dances through the air in the theatre, tethered to an almost invisible wire manipulated with astonishing skill by a puppeteer clothed in black. Other puppeteers and singers wade through a pool of water in the space where the orchestra normally works (the musicians are onstage). Shadows thrown onto a screen tell elaborate fairy tales.
Hundreds of critics have written about Lepage but it's hard to imagine anyone who might be a Lepage expert. He does so many shows in so many places, often developing a show long after many audiences have passed judgment on it, that a critic could completely understand Lepage only through a long-term, high-cost project, following him to Aix-en-Provence, Moscow, Brooklyn, Quebec City, etc. while noting the growth of his ideas. Lepage believes in process more than product. It's never too late for another draft, another revision of his ideas.
He's the writer or co-author of 17 plays, beginning with Circulations, the French-mixed-with-English comedy that began his career in 1984, when he was 24. Since 1985 I've seen five of his plays and two of his operatic productions, which leaves me with a few ideas about him but only a partial sense of what he's accomplished.
At the heart of his work there's a striking contradiction. On the stage we see a rigidly precise collection of performances and special effects, superbly rehearsed, the sets and props moving swiftly on and offstage.
But in the development stage he relies on the improvisational playfulness of his performers and designers. As he once said, "It's a dizzying process. You fall into it. Even when it doesn't look like a team effort, it is."
A team works with him even as he develops his ideas for a one-man show. "I can see myself through their eyes and find myself too." Something like that may have been behind one of the most remarkable moments in Vinci, a 1986 one-man show that exhibited both the young Lepage's daring and his personal skill. Perhaps any talented writer/ actor could devise an interesting evening about Leonardo da Vinci, but few could transform himself, before our eyes (using light, facial expression, hair, body language etc.), into the Mona Lisa herself--and do it convincingly.
The fact that he works far beyond traditional theatre makes me look to other art for parallels to his career, his style and his tone. Like Duke Ellington, he pulls together artists who may seem only marginally related to each other but then turns them into an ensemble that makes their joining-together appear inevitable. His best scenes are as sly, surprising and inventive as a paragraph by Vladimir Nabokov and as slick as a drawing by David Hockney. In the solemn stillness he draws from his performers you can see (or, I think I can see) the classic deadpan of Buster Keaton.
Lepage mystifies us sometimes. However ingenious his direction, it can be difficult to grasp the meaning of a character or scene. When this happens, you sense how much he has learned to trust his audience and his talent. He says, in effect, "Don't be impatient. Wait, pay attention. All will be revealed." Enthralled, the audience usually agrees to go along. Sometimes we wait a long time for the explanation. Lipsynch, the nine-hour epic he brought to Toronto in June, begins in an aircraft 30,000 feet up, where a woman dies while holding a baby. We are left wondering about the baby's fate and the identity of the mother. But as Lipsynch draws close to its conclusion, more than eight hours later, we learn from a flashback that the dead woman is a Nicaraguan sold into a Hamburg brothel by her uncle and her baby is someone we've been watching, as an adult, for hours.
Lipsynch's script sometimes turns sentimental, there are scenes that seem to need cutting, and some audience members find nine hours just too long. That last point was raised recently at a press conference in Montreal (where Lipsynch opens in February). Lepage replied only that, "It's important to take the time to tell the story." There are certain points in every Lepage production when I grow impatient but a few moments later he offers a scene so richly original that he altogether redeems himself. At the end of Lipsynch, far from being tired of his sensibility, I felt like seeing the whole thing again, if possible on the following day.
Alas, there were no tickets available. It occurred to me there are only two reasons I resent Lepage. The first is that his shows have short runs and tickets are hard to get. The second is that he comes into my life far too seldom.
I agree with the Australian critic who recently saw Lipsynch at the Sydney Festival and began his review with a curt summary: "Too short."