Monday, April 13, 2015

Getting High: Robert Lepage’s Needles and Opium

Wellesley Robertson III and Marc Lebrèche in Robert Lepage's Needles and Opium. (Photo by Nicola-Frank Vachon)

Carl Fillion’s set for Needles and Opium, written and directed by the Québecois auteur Robert Lepage and produced by his company Ex Machina – which Boston’s ArtsEmerson series brought to the Cutler Majestic Theatre last week for a four-day run – is an open four-sided figure, like a section of a dollhouse, that hovers and spins above the stage. Most of the time it stands in for a room in the Hotel Louisiane or a recording studio, both in Paris, but depending on how Bruno Matte lights it or how the images designed by Lionel Arnould are projected onto it – and depending, of course, on how it turns – it can become an alleyway outside a nightclub, the interior of an airplane or the backdrop for a nocturnal walk through New York City. And often it emulates the disoriented state of one of its three characters, the French poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau (Marc Labrèche), who took opium, the jazz trumpeter Miles Davis (Wellesley Robertson III), who took heroin, and the play’s protagonist, a Québecois actor named Robert (also Labrèche). Robert finds himself in Paris recording the voice-over for a documentary about Davis’s lover Juliette Gréco while trying to deal with a break-up the anguish of which has swallowed him alive, demolishing sleep and leaving him so vulnerable to sentimental triggers that an allusion to Davis and Gréco’s romance in the voice-over script makes him break down in the middle of the recording session. (He’s chosen to stay in Room 9 of the Hotel Louisiane because that’s where Davis and Gréco stayed when he first came to Paris in 1949 – which was also the year Cocteau wrote A Letter to Americans on the flight back to Paris from New York. The Cocteau sections of the piece are derived from that work and from Opium, the Diary of a Cure.) Needles and Opium suggests that Robert’s unmoored mental condition and his romantic addiction is like the drug habits of his heroes. But in Lepage’s brilliantly conceived text, their stories also intersect with Robert’s in terms of love and loss: Cocteau writes about the death, from typhoid fever, of his twenty-year-old protégé, the prodigious writer Raymond Radiguet (the author of the tender romantic novel Devil in the Flesh, published in 1923, the year Radiguet died).

Carl Fillion’s set, Needles and Opium. (Photo: Nicola-Frank Vachon)
Labrèche and Robertson, hooked to safety harnesses, climb the rotating sides of the set, pop in and out of a door in one side (which sometimes operates as a window or a trap), even sit on top of it; in one especially eerie surrealistic moment, Robertson crawls across one wall, sinking to the bottom as it appears to tuck underneath itself and become the floor of Davis’s hotel room. Robertson, a dancer and gymnast, moves with a kind of shimmering bebop grace; his physical shifts are like glissandos. (His trumpet playing has been dubbed by Craig L. Pedersen.) In the case of Labrèche, whose performance is a tour de force, we focus on voice rather than physicality. The sole reader of Lepage’s text, he uses entirely different voices for Robert and Cocteau. Cocteau is flamboyant and self-conscious; Robert’s trademark is often witty ironic understatement. However, these two characters slip inside and outside each other continually, like the walls of the set. Cocteau is also a master ironist; Robert’s inability to control his romantic sorrow pulls against his tendency to understatement and links him to Cocteau’s unbridled emotionalism. (There’s a third figure on stage: Claudia Gendreau, who designed the props for the production, appears briefly as Gréco.)

In one scene, Robert talks on the phone to his ex, who’s rehearsing a show in New York. The intricate interplay of feelings and tactics – the failed effort to act casual, the frantic bargaining to retain some small place in his lover’s life, the humiliation, the masochism and despair – is raw and devastating. This section is a reference to Cocteau’s monodrama The Human Voice, in which a woman talks on the phone to the man who has finally walked out on her. (The Human Voice is an amazing little play; there’s an unforgettable film version by Roberto Rossellini, starring the great Anna Magnani, and Almodóvar played imaginative variations on it in two of his early movies, Law of Desire and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.) Lepage’s text also alludes to the myth of Orpheus, which Cocteau turned into both a play and a movie.

Needles and Opium is performed without an intermission and its English-language version was translated by Jenny Montgomery. Originally conceived in the mid-nineties, it was one of the productions that made Lepage famous; I didn’t see it then so I have no idea how he’s altered it, but a program note reports that the set design is new. Of course it would be reductive to say that, its title notwithstanding, the piece is just about getting high, but it’s such a kinetic, vertiginous experience that it gets the audience high. I think this is the most exciting piece of theatre I’ve seen in the last couple of years.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment