Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Sublime and the Superficial: NEEDLES AND OPIUM and WINNERS and LOSERS at Can Stage

When you and your best friend come from different classes, how do you navigate that divide?

How do great artists transform their deepest emotions into art?

These were two seminal questions posed by two very different productions at Canadian Stage this past weekend. One production provided a rich and affecting exploration of its subject matter:  the other was content to skim the surface, and was consequently, much less satisfying.

Let me explain.

On Friday night, I saw WINNERS and LOSERS.  Crow's Theatre presents challenging and thought-provoking work and they were co-presenting with Canadian Stage. 

The show is one of those high concept things:  reality television meets improv theatre.  The two actors, Marcus Youssef and James Long are friends in real life. They created the script together.  It is 75% memorized and 25% improvised.  It's done a bit like a game show and games get played;  wrestling and ping pong.  Lines get drawn on the floor to define the parameters of space, and perhaps debate.  Bells get rung: to end things.

This was less a discussion about class, and more a discussion about money, and how some people use money as a way to keep score in relationships.  Is the person with the most money always the winner? How do men judge their male friends?  Their fathers? What makes someone or something a winner or a loser?

I wanted to like the piece:  I liked the actors and some of the dialogue was funny, some of it was thought provoking, but always, I felt what wasn't being said or discussed was more interesting than what was.

Youssef married young and has grown children. Long married late and has young children. That means Long dated a lot longer.  It also means they had two very different experiences of being a parent.

These two subjects alone would have made a meal, but we barely get an appetizer.

Long masturbates watching porn: Youssef  uses his imagination, which is pretty lively.  Did they take on how they felt about watching porn?  Or why one guy watched porn and the other didn't?  No.

Long is white with a cop for a dad.  Youssef comes from an Egyptian family of intellectuals and bankers.  There was a lot of talk about Youssef's dad handing him money, but did they touch white male privilege, that thing money can't buy?  Oh no, hell no.

A deeper conversation about parenting, and about their respective relationships to their own parents comes close to happening, but backs off as soon as it goes deep.

That was too bad.  As actors, I am convinced these two had the chops to do this, but the subject matter needed the distance and structure of fiction to elevate the text from play to art.

As it stands, WINNERS AND LOSERS is a night spent watching two skilled players in a shinny game:  no hard hits, skating on the surface, old buddies drinking a beer and passing the puck around, a bit of stylized aggression going nowhere with no real stakes.  This was a rec game.  No one really cared who won.  The concept was better than the pay-off. I would have preferred to have seen an actual play  that fully addressed the questions this provoked, but never really dealt with.  You know:  less game and more play.

Then, on Sunday afternoon, I had an experience in a theatre I will treasure for the rest of my life:  Robert's Lepage's intense and exquisite re-visitation to his script from over 25 years ago:  NEEDLES AND OPIUM.

The play starts off with an illuminated map of the acupuncture points on the human body projected on to Robert (Marc Labreche), an actor in Paris doing the English and French voice-over for an American/French film about Miles Davis.  Alone in a hotel room where Julie Greco, Satre and de Beauvoir once lived in the over-heated Hotel Louisiana, Robert is struggling in the aftermath of a break-up.  Acupuncture can cure almost everything: except anguish and a broken heart.

Lepage muses on Jean Cocteau, existentialism, jazz and the life and the music of the great Miles Davis to create an exquisite and compelling aural and visual meditation on the power of artists to transform their personal anguish and heartbreak, their needles, if you will, into the great opiate of sublime art.

Cocteau and Davis both fell prey to the needle of opium: heroin.  Lepage, the writer understands that addiction is about the self medication of the existential pain of living. Art is an alternative track:  in the right hands, it yields similarly consuming results but offers a path not to destruction, but to creation. In the transformation of human anguish to art, the stars are truly born.

The show features three fabulous performers: Marc Labreche, who plays both Robert and Cocteau, seamlessly moving between two worlds and two characters, Wellesley Robertson III who plays Miles Davis with powerful physicality and great elegance, and an uncredited woman who plays the sensuous Julie Greco.

Lepage's highly skilled and accomplished design team provided the cast with an endlessly evocative and inventive set:  a rotating blank canvas of a cube that shape-shifted with a series of lighting and costume changes, traps, aerial wires, sound, music, and projected film to create a world of beauty, sensation and human emotion.

One hundred and twenty uninterrupted minutes flew by:  a complete psychic immersion for the audience. We were transported, body and soul.

NEEDLES and OPIUM was intellectually rigorous, aesthetically beautiful and profoundly moving.

This was absolutely the high point of my theatrical experiences this year.  What a trip!

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