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Friday, March 3, 2017

Robert Lepage at BAM

by Joseph Bradshaw

Robert Lepage
From his upturning of Wagner’s Ring Cycle at the Met to his reinvention of the hardboiled detective story in Polygraph (presented at 1990’s Next Wave Festival), Robert Lepage can always be found at the forefront of theatrical innovation. Also an acclaimed film director, Lepage’s work for the stage strikes an inventive balance between filmed and live action. His deep understanding of the potential of contemporary technology is used to reinterpret the past, and his results are always astonishing. What else would we expect from contemporary theater’s foremost Renaissance man?    

Since Polygraph, BAM has presented Lepage’s stage work on the regular. For the 1992 Next Wave a 35-year-old Lepage—who by that point was already an established figure on the international scene—performed his triumphal one-man show Needles and Opium. This piece, which Mel Gussow called “a chamber work marked by its absolute precision,” crosscut the lives of Miles Davis and Jean Cocteau with elements of Lepage’s own autobiography, in a gymnastic medley of musings on jazz, travel, Surrealism, and the act of creation itself.

Needles and Opium. Photo: Alastair Muir
Needles and Opium paved the way for Lepage’s future innovations, including his controversial reimagining of several Shakespeare productions such as Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. To the mixture of film and live performance Lepage added puppetry in The Seven Streams of the River Ota (1996 Next Wave Festival), which told the epic story of westerners who arrive at Hiroshima and come face to face with themselves in devastation and illumination.

Lipsynch. Photo: Richard Termine
Lepage continued this epic scope in Lipsynch (2009 Next Wave Festival), an eight-hour meditation on the creative potential and destructive power of the human voice. In The Nightingale and Other Short Fables (Spring 2011), he combined two of Stravinsky’s chamber ballets with traditional Vietnamese puppetry. His most recent BAM engagement was the New York premiere of The Blue Dragon, a tale of love and disenchantment in modern-day Shanghai—a fitting piece for a globetrotting artist whose themes are increasingly universal.

For Robert Lepage, universality is rooted in direct experience. The key to successfully addressing the universal, as he himself says, is to “talk about what goes on as honestly as possible. Talk about what goes on in your kitchen, and anybody will recognize themselves in that.” It follows, then, that 887—coming to the BAM Harvey Theater March 16—26—has been called "the most intimate show of his career" by The Telegraph. In the multimedia solo work, the apartment complex where Lepage spent his youth—887 Murray Ave, Quebec City, Canada—comes to extraordinary life via the renowned director’s signature use of cutting-edge technology. Inspired by his own inability to memorize a poem for a special event, 887 soon opens out into a wide-ranging journey into the realm of memory.

As Lepage revisits his childhood home and other brilliantly reconstructed spaces—from the front seat of his cabdriver father’s taxi to his own ultramodern present-day flat—the questions multiply: Why do we remember the phone number from our youth yet forget our current one? How does a childhood song withstand the test of time while the name of a loved one escapes us? And how is theater—an art based in part on the act of recollection—still relevant in a digital age where megabytes take the place of memory?

Ex Machina's 887 comes to the BAM Harvey Theater March 16—26, and great tickets are still available.

Repurposed from a 2013 BAM blog article.

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