ArtsEmerson's "Needles and Opium": The Rubrics of Cubism

Marc Labreche in "Needles & Opium"
(photo: Nicola-Frank Vachon) 

ArtsEmerson's current production of “Needles and Opium” is a trip in several meanings of the term. Written and Directed by Robert LePage (“The Andersen Project”), founder of his own Ex Machina, a multidisciplinary production company in Canada, and designer of the 2012 “Ring Cycle” at the Metropolitan Opera, this is one tour de force of what might be termed cubism, though LePage doesn't follow the rules of any form, but shatters and reassembles them.

Written by LePage in1991 after a break-up with his lover, this piece of performance art features a Québécois also named Robert (originally played by LePage himself, played here by Marc Labrèche) who has checked into the Parisian Hotel La Louisiane, Room Number 9, in withdrawal from a romantic crisis. The room is the same one in which Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre once lived, a reflection of Robert's own current torment as well as that of famous jazz musician Miles Davis (played by Wellesley Robertson III) and filmmaker Jean Cocteau (played by Labrèche) who are also featured in this work in scenes taking place some forty years prior. Cocteau had become addicted to opium, Davis to heroin, while Robert's addiction is to love. When they were each at the very top of their respective careers, they cross in the sky when Cocteau flies to New York and Davis takes a flight to Paris. In his “Letter to Americans”, Cocteau questions whether pain should be considered a sine qua non of creative genius and whether one's sadness may be transformed into beauty. The play's action takes place entirely within a rotating cube as the actors search for their proper places, literally and, more important, figuratively, while the world transitions from the technology of the mechanical age to that of the postmodern.

It's avant-garde theater at its most visually stunning. The concepts of space/time movement and the continuum of life are creatively illustrated with some of the most awe-inspiring magic one could ever hope to see. This is greatly achieved and enhanced by the Set Design by Carl Fillion, which often defies description, as well as the musical pieces chosen, ranging from Davis' jazz works to Rodgers and Hart's “My Funny Valentine” and Kern and Fields' “The Way You Look Tonight”, with Music and Sound Design by Jean-Sébastien Côté, Lighting Design by Bruno Matte, Costume Design by François St-Aubin, Image Design by Lionel Arnould and Technical Direction by Michel Gosselin. The text as noted is by LePage, in an English translation by Jenny Montgomery.

The physical requirements for the actors are demanding, as they transverse the cube center stage, and both Labrèche and Robertson are amazing. One negative note is the difficulty in understanding the monologue by the character Cocteau due to his heavy French accent. Yet that's a minor complaint when one is presented with such visuals. Not unlike the production for the Met, (which was controversial in opera circles), the mechanics of this work are complex and precisely timed. It's no wonder that the huge tech team took bows alongside the actors. And about that trip: in production notes in the program, Rob Orchard (ArtsEmerson's Founder and Creative Consultant) writes that “as a tourist you'll be frustrated by a trip with Robert LePage; as a traveler, you'll be transported.”

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