Saturday, July 18, 2015

REVIEW: PANAMANIA Week One: Miller, Jain and Lepage

Last week, I saw three of the theatrical productions on offer as part of PANAMANIA: 20,00 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, Rick Miller and company's take on Jules Verne's novel, GIMMIE SHELTER, Ravi Jain's re-imaging of the Indian epic story,  THE MAHABHARATA and 887, Lepage's very personal story about his childhood in Quebec City, during the Quiet Revolution and the FLQ crisis.

Like Verne's novel, Miller's production is epic in scope, and madly ambitious.  He has collaborated with filmmaker, Deco Dawson who creates the world of Captain Nemo's submarine, THE NAUTILUS, and life under and on the sea, with a series of fantastic layered projections. Puppets and performers animate a world that floats between a polluted, technology driven present, and a past where war, and whaling left the oceans awash in blood.

The production has jaw-dropping magical segments, and plenty of plot:  perhaps a little too much.

The script's fusion of a contemporary narrative with a Verne-inspired past works pretty well in the first act, but hasn't quite been sorted out in the second half.

There's a big chunk of clunky exposition in Act II that isn't integrated into the rest of the action-driven script. I get that we are going to have to resolve water issues as a society, but that doesn't absolve playwrights of the need to resolve the plot lines in their scripts. Moreover, the story doesn't have any clear ending.

200,000 Leagues has a lot going for it.  The cast has good chemistry and it is beautiful to look at.  I think once the story is more polished, and the script and the technology are better integrated, this show will really shine. Last week, the tech and the story hadn't quite melded into a seamless whole. The show has another outing at the GRAND Theatre in London this winter.  Catch it there, when it is a bit more together.

Down the street, at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Ravi Jain is performing an intimate folk tale from his childhood, which he uses to examine the plight of people forced into exile, by climate change.

As the son of immigrants, Jain tells us he is drawn to the plight of migrants, and you really feel his heart in this production.

Jain is both a thoughtful and and intelligent writer, and a wonderfully engaging, and skillful performer. He slides out of a formal black paisley South Asian gentleman's coat, and magically materializes a series of costume pieces, and a traditional masque, which he uses to transition into the narrator of a compellingly told tale of two warriors, engaged in a game of greed, and gambling run amok.

Jain's fine physical performance of the story is well supported by Gurpreet Chana's hypnotic tabla music, Nicholas Murray's sound design, and Daniel LeClerc's video shadow puppets. The blend of projections on two spinning, sliding screens and Jain's clever movement let us fly with him, as he moves through his epic folk tale. The elegant set by Ken MacKenzie is simple, evocative, and very effective.

Towards the end, Jain invites the audience to join him in telling the story, or rather in imagining a world where connection and compassion triumph over greed and self-interest. I understood why he chose to end it as he did, given his theme.  However his sophisticated performance, and the amorphous ending aren't well-melded, and I felt left hanging.

It's a lovely show with a lot of heart, it just didn't feel quite finished.

Then Tuesday, Robert Lepage opened 887 at Canadian Stage, and we all got what we came for: a stunning work of art by Le Maitre, at the top of his form.

Simply, on a black stage, Lepage begins to tells a story. He has been asked to learn a poem, for the 40th anniversary celebration of a famous night in Quebec cultural history: La Nuit de Poesie. The poem is "Speak White" by Michele Lalonde.

The present day Lepage worries about his memory: is he going senile, like his grandmother?  Why can he remember phone numbers from childhood, but none from last week? Why is it so hard to learn a poem, now that he is past 50?  What will the world remember of his ephemeral theatre creations when he's gone?

"Je me souviens" - "I remember" is on every license plate in Quebec.  Lepage, does indeed, remember, and he masterfully takes us back 40 years in time, to his childhood home, in a three bedroom apartment, at 887 Murray Street, in Quebec City, where he lived with his parents, his brother, his two sisters, and his failing grandmother.

As the black cube stunningly morphs into his childhood apartment building, his aunt and uncle's house,  his present chic downtown condo, and many other things, he shows us what led to the Quiet Revolution, the FLQ Crisis, and to the separatist sentiments in Quebec, that go underground, but never die:  the way French Canadians were exploited as cheap labour, and treated as second-class citizens.

Lepage's family, neighbours, and hometown come to life:  from his father's taxi cab awash in cigarette smoke, and American music, to the sad, scary and funny goings on in the homes of his neighbours.

The integration of the many design elements: projections, scale models, and smart phone technology was seamless, drawing us deeper and deeper into the vortex of the story. The show makes brilliant use of technology to enhance and support Lepage's heart-breaking narrative about a part of Canadian history many of us would rather forget.

In 887, Lepage perfectly melds the personal, and the political, into an explosive play about race, class, language, politics, family, love, and loss and he tells it with disarming skill, passion, humour and grace.  His electrifying recitation of SPEAK WHITE is a moment in a theatre I will never forget.

Lepage knows exactly where, when, and how he wants to end his story, pulling together the narrative  lines of history and family in a gut-wrenching, emotional punch.

Lepage brought his technicians onto the stage for the curtain call. He, and they received a well deserved standing ovation. Ex Machina, indeed.

887 reminds us if we forget our history, we are destined to repeat it. It is the theatre event of the festival.

20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA will re-open at the Grand Theatre, London Ontario, this winter. GIMMIE SHELTER and 887 continue this weekend at the PANAMANIA Theatre Festival.
For dates, times and tickets, go to

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