Friday, April 7, 2017

"Needles and Opium"

Needles and Opium
Robert Lepage

Oliver Normand
Two similar comments seem to be on the lips of everyone as the house lights come up after the final stage bows – whether it is the woman sitting next to me, couples exiting with question marks written all across their faces, or the guys joining me along the downstairs urinals after the ninety-five minute, no-intermission show. 

“Do you have any idea what just happened?  I just don’t get it at all.”

“Never have I seen anything so visually incredible in a live performance.  How on earth did they do all that?”

And both immediate reactions are true to my own experience.  Needles and Opium, a 1991 premiere by Robert Lepage, is a jaw-dropping, armrest-clinching montage of scenes mostly taking place in an elevated, swaying and rotating, gray-walled half-cube about the size of a small hotel room (designed by Carl Fillion).  Two actors defy gravity and literally cause audience gasps as they walk, glide, and tumble on walls that become floor that turn to ceiling – both actors who at times seem to disappear into thin air.  And all during the current American Conservatory Theatre production directed with out-of-this-world ingenuity by the creator himself, Robert Lepage, we are still often left scratching our heads as to what actually is the story we are watching (and if there in fact is a plot) while at the same time wanting the moving spectacle of projections, music, acrobatics, and dance never to end.

Three stories intertwine of people who never meet and who exist in two time periods – stories tied loosely by the common threads of a trip to other side of the Atlantic for performance purposes, of personal struggles to deal with lost loves, and of desperately seeking a refuge to escape pain in their lives (two through opium and/or heroin, one through hypnosis). 

Wellesley Robertson III
Wellesley Robertson III is a silent Miles Davis who speaks only through his haunting, slow-speed notes of jazz that float from his ever-present trumpet (with music and sound designed by Jean-Sébastian Côte).  The performer goes to his beloved Paris in 1949, finds there as a black man the audience love and acceptance that escapes him in America, and falls in love with singer Juliette Gréco.  Upon return to the prejudices of the U.S. without his newfound love, he turns to needles for solace.  Mr. Robertson injects his Miles Davis with a needle like none ever before seen on stage and goes on a drug-infused trip, providing one of the most heart-breaking, astounding sequences in an evening already packed with astoundingly powerful moments – visual and emotional. 

Olivier Normand
Olivier Normand plays the French writer, playwright, performer and filmmaker Jean Cousteau whom we see making a similar, cross-Atlantic journey (1948) in the opposite direction to New York.  On the way home he writes “Lettre aux Américains (“Letter to Americans”), excerpts that we hear as a air-floating, upside-down Cousteau reads the letter in thick-French accent (so heavy in accent that unfortunately much of what is said is often difficult for this American audience to discern).  While in New York, Cousteau creates with Life Magazine a series of photographs we see reenacted as he -- with four arms -- simultaneously draws, drinks, and smokes in another eye-popping sequence performed by Mr. Normand after he magically appears half-emerged in the floor of the moving half-cube.  We also hear of Mr. Cousteau’s own love and hate of opium, a drug he turns to early and often in a life to escape the tragic loss of his one, true love (a young man named Raymond Radiguet).

Wellesley Robertson III & Olivier Normand
But the bulk of Robert Lepage’s script and loosely knit story is devoted to Robert (also played by Olivier Normand), a Quebecois actor who travels to Paris after a recent break-up to do a voice recording for a documentary about Davis and Gréco.  Robert seeks his own refuge in Miles’ trumpet music and Gréco’s “Letter.”  However, Mr. Lepage’s script subjects us to a series of curiously bland, non-impactful scenes where Robert does things like have trouble sleeping in a cheap, Paris hotel (due to all-night love-making next door); talks on the phone to his ex who does not want to talk to him; and has initial trouble getting through the voice-overs for the documentary on Miles Davis.  When the French-and-English speaking Robert moves into the former language, his fast-paced, foreign chatter is unfortunately translated in supertitles too small, too high, and too quickly disappearing above the cubed setting below to be very useful to us as audience – not that the dialogue really seems to matter that much.

Fortunately, the non-story for such a dominant character (about whom we do not ever learn enough to care much) is told amidst thrilling projections by Lionel Arnould and stunning lighting by Bruno Matte – creative effects that there are not enough adjectives adequately to describe their inventive magnificence.  Together they turn Robert’s half-cubed environ into an ever-changing, often-moving world of Paris’s streets, his hotel room, and a recording studio – scenes Mr. Normand must manipulate like a skilled artist skilled in gymnastics, ballet, and circus.  Never will we likely see any more incredible exit from a hotel bed than can be seen when reclining Robert yawns his long legs away from bed onto wall to find himself suddenly standing on what is now a floor before then disappearing seemingly into some dark, unknown world beyond the cube itself.

If entering the Geary Theatre in somewhat the mindset of going into a Cirque du Soleil tent, then there is little doubt that when walking out, almost anyone is going to be shaking a head that is bursting with awe-filled memories of scene after scene of mind-blowing experiences.  Sometimes like a souped-up, Disney Park attraction that can leave the stomach a bit queasy and other times like a scene in the most magnificent of ballets, Needles and Opium begs to be seen, to be experienced but humbly asks forgiveness if its meaning is not quite understood from beginning to end.

Rating: 4 E

Needles and Opium continues through April 23, 2017 on the Geary Stage of of American Conservatory Theatre, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office 415-749-2228.

Photos by Tristram Kenton & Nicola-Frank Vachon

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