“It is just when we delve deeper into the sorrows of our lives, the sorrows we have all endured, that our humor saves us.”
By Robert Israel
When heralded Canadian director Robert Lepage last visited Boston in 2012, his star power was in the ascendant, at least in the American Northeast: he was directing a lavish and critically admired production of Wagner’s Ring cycle at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, staging a production of his The Andersen Project at ArtsEmerson in Boston, and receiving the Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts at MIT, which comes with a lavish purse of $80,000.
Three years have passed, and now, thanks to ArtsEmerson, Lepage (trailing clouds of glory?) returns on April 9 through 12, for a revival of Needles and Opium, a show he conceived (and starred in) in his native Quebec twenty years ago.
According to Quebecois actor (and Needles and Opium star) Marc Labrèche, who had previously worked with Lepage years ago, the play had been all but forgotten in the prolific lineup of the dramatist’s work, which includes numerous feature films, stage productions, operas, as well as an original script for Cirque du Soleil. He is an international star (a mixed blessing that is touched on in The Andersen Project) whose work has been produced far outside of Canada. His creations have toured throughout the United States, Asia, and Europe.
“I suggested to Robert’s sister Linda, who assists him in many of his projects, that we revisit the production, perhaps rework it, somehow, and some two weeks later she telephoned me to say yes, he wanted to meet with me to do just that,” Labrèche said in a telephone interview from his home in Montreal.
The production also features Wellesley Robertson III in a story that focuses on jazz trumpeter Miles Davis’s visit to Paris in 1949, during which he became enamored with French chanteuse Juliete Greco. That drama is intertwined with French writer Jean Cocteau’s visit to New York during the same period. Despite the historical grounding, this work gets the full-blown Lepage treatment: technology, stage craft, lighting, music, and acrobatics are blended to form a mind-trip of a mélange, a surrealistic tapestry.
“The show today has the same heart, just a different body,” Labrèche said. He speaks with a pronounced Quebecois accent that accentuates words nasally, and he frequently breaks into loud and infectious laughter.
“I cannot apologize for my laughter. I come from a culture that has gone through so many hardships over so long a time and yet, like my fellow Quebecois, I am jovial, ebullient, cursed with an unquenchable joie de vivre,” he said. This same spirit, the performer noted, can be found in Lepage’s work, especially in Needles and Opium.
In Canada’s National Post critic Robert Cushman wrote that this joviality is “one of Robert Lepage’s finest but least celebrated qualities…his humour. There are scenes in Needles and Opium that are the funniest in any Canadian play in ages.”
“When Robert and I were collaborating on updating a twenty-year-old script, we wanted to make it more expressive of a broader spectrum of the human experience. Since it had been laid to rest over many years, it has benefitted, I think, from a maturing process. But what holds it together,” Labrèche added, “as it did in the beginning, is its simple storytelling. Yes, Lepage’s work is sophisticated, it embraces today’s technology, but at his core he is a simple storyteller who wants audiences to reflect, to become part of an intimate experience on stage that invites us to feel and think deeply. The characters are going through a lot of pain. In many ways, the story is heartbreaking and heart wrenching. But you cannot just connect with an audience through one emotion solely. And so he adds layers of humor, or perhaps I should say, elements of humor are peppered throughout. One character, an acrobat, remains totally silent. And then there is the marvelous scenery, which makes the experience more varied and brings it closer to the audience.”
During Lepage’s McDermott lecture at MIT two years ago, he described his innovative vision of bringing together different elements in order to create theater for audiences that have become increasingly sophisticated in terms of technology.
“When we create theater for the 21st century,” he told the MIT audience, “we bring stagecraft, technology, storytelling, interactive video projections, arial acrobatics all under one roof. It is this coming together of many elements that gives us a multi-layered experience in theater for our new age.”
The show has toured internationally, Labrèche said, and has attracted younger audiences, something that initially came as a surprise to the actor.
“We performed it in Spain last year,” Labrèche said, “and there were many young people in the audience seeking us out afterward, wanting to share with us the pain and sadness that they had gone through watching the play, experiencing our work.”
And then, as if out of nowhere, Labrèche broke into another one of his jags of deep laughter that seemed to rise up out of his gut, filling the phone wires with a loud cackling. It was as if recalling the depths of despair inevitably aroused his joyful spirit.
“It is just when we delve deeper into the sorrows of our lives, the sorrows we have all endured, that our humor saves us,” he said. “And that’s what happens in this show, too.”
Robert Israel writes about theater, travel and the arts, and is a member of Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org