Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond


November 13, 2008

Photo: Erick Labbe/LAT 2008

So you’ve just finished developing and directing a new technologically complex opera production for one of the world’s major companies to some acclaim in the international media. What’s next for you? How about performing in your own theatrical work in front of rows of rude and apathetic UCLA undergrads who are careful not to let this general education class requirement get in the way of their text messaging time. But such is the lot of a world-renown theater visionary such as Robert Lepage and his colleagues in Ex Machina who have arrived in Los Angeles just days after his new production of Berlioz’ La Damnation de Faust has opened at The Metropolitan Opera in New York to appear in The Blue Dragon a play co-written with his co-star Marie Maichaud. Apparently technological innovation cuts both ways in that it is simultaneously the hallmark of his production and well the source of general rude misbehavior (at least tonight) from some of UCLAs not-quite-so finest.

Of course, on some level I can sympathize with the offenders since this is not the proverbial pearls that have been laid before them, but something else. Lepage and Maichaud have crafted a play that is somewhat of a sequel to The Dragon Trilogy, a landmark work from over 20 years ago. In The Blue Dragon, Pierre Lamontagne resurfaces in China many years after the end of the previous play. He is now in a faltering affair with a young local artist he is helping to promote in his gallery while simultaneously welcoming the arrival of an old friend, Claire, who has ostensibly come to China to adopt a child. Pierre’s lover, Xiao Ling, rounds out this three-person cast. Everyone steps around each other with much politeness and care until a brief burst of tidy emotion eventually leads to denouement.

The three actors, including Lepage himself and Pierre, are at play in a two story set rife with all of the visual tricks Lepage has become famous for, including retractable video screens and technology that produces video images which respond to stimuli provided directly by the cast themselves. There are bicycling scenes through the streets of Shanghai and electronic snow. Everywhere there is video and more subtle effects enhanced by a set and music that more often than not come to the characters as opposed to the other way around. It's like they're all living in one of those houses of the future fantasized about in the media in the 1980s where computers would do everything for you in the domestic sphere. It is amazing how Lepage manages to use so little space in such a flexible way.

Unfortunately, the very same technology that made Damnation such a success in New York withers here due largely to the relative lack of strength of the source material. The piece is bogged down with an overly timid and predicable story line. It's suburban melodrama at its core with half-hearted references to crossing cultural divides. It is neither sexy or dangerous. It is this placidity that is most difficult to get around not only in terms of the script, but also in the highly constricted and slow technique that all of the actors seem to engage in. Whether this is completely a matter of direction is unclear, but the extent to which everyone is so well-mannered seems unrealistic. Still, it's quite a floor show and if you are unfamiliar with Lepage's work, this is not a bad place to start. The Blue Dragon runs through November 22nd at UCLA's Freud Playhouse.



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