Friday, February 24, 2012

Spectacle and Substance on stage in Toronto

It's been ages since I've written.

My birthday was a few weeks back and I always regard that as the start of my personal new year. One of my goals for this year is to blog about film and theatre I've seen in the preceding week, every Friday. So to quote a rather famous line from a film, "I'm back!"

The past week was an embarrassment of theatrical riches. Over at the Royal Alex, Robert Lepage's production of his own play "The Blue Dragon" was closing and I went on the last afternoon.

Aesthetically, it was beautiful. A two-tiered set with English surtitles projected in the space between the levels, Chinese dance and wire work, calligraphy that was projected onto the wall as it was being painted on the floor: the protagonist is a visual artist in the centre of a love triangle and the set was lovely to look at.

Two damaged middle-aged people: a woman who is a careerist in manufacturing and an alcoholic and a man, a failed artist who runs a gallery, reconnect in China. Long ago, they were married but he, overwhelmed by the expectations of a domineering father fled the relationship and Quebec to pursue a career abroad.

His self abuse of choice is body art. The blue dragon of the title was inked onto him by a young woman, an ambitious visual artist who he has taken as a lover and a client. She is young enough to be his daughter and she is using him to advance her own career.

His ex-wife is in China to adopt a daughter. She has longed for a child all of her life and is now too old to have one herself.

Blue Dragon is in many ways, a sad play about lost hopes and failed ambitions. Like many depressed people, it seemed curiously without passion. The bed on the second level is pushed off to one side up top. In a love triangle, it seemed to me to need to be front and centre. The visual elements dominated and the relationships between the three characters suffered as a result.

There was fine acting but there was no credible chemistry between Michel and his former wife. Without that palpable sexual frisson, the story lost some of its zing.

I was very happy to have seen it. Lepage, even when he is flawed is always a master of stagecraft and some of the writing was sheer poetry.

February is the month for high romance in this part of the world and the COC poured it on in their exquisite production of LOVE FROM AFAR.

I've seldom seen a show where all the elements: music, libretto, performances, direction, choreography and set and lighting design were so marvelously in harmony, enhancing and supporting each other.

As the orchestra played the overture, a giant blue silk flew over the heads of the audience like a moving sky, pooled onto the floor of the stage and transformed it  into a rippling sea. The sea vanished into a trap after the set representing the Prince's chateau in Aquitaine flew in. I felt my heart leap in my chest. I knew we were in for a night of pure theatrical magic.

Russell Braun and Erin Wall play the lovers divided by an ocean. He is a prince and a poet who longs for a woman he cannot find among the dissolute members of his court. His friend, the Pilgrim (exquisitely sung by the fabulous mezzo Kristina Szabo) tells him such a woman exists in Tripoli, a Countess. The Prince begins to write songs in her praise. When the Pilgrim goes abroad he visits the Countess and tells her of this love from afar, singing her some of the songs the Prince has written in her honour.

She says she is unworthy: in life she is not the woman he fantasizes about.

As he regales her with this tale, we see the Prince walking in the background dropping sheets of paper.

When the Pilgrim returns to France he lets the Prince know that the Lady is now aware of his passion. Angry at his friend for telling and then terrified she will reject him when he arrives, he undertakes the sea voyage and the stress makes him so ill, he arrives and dies in her arms. She takes the veil.

Ah opera! Is anything more romantic or less like life? The set by Jean Rabasse was the most fantastically beautiful I have ever seen onstage at a theatre. He has built three shows for Cirque du Soleil and designed films for the French film duo of Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. The synthesis of this theatrical, circus and cinematic experience was the icing on a near-perfect production.

For most of us "long distance relationship" like "military intelligence" turns out to be an oxymoron. For one perfect night, the COC and an international crew of stellar artists made a lovely dream palpable. For a few brief hours LOVE FROM AFAR set fire to our hearts.