Performance diary: THE BLUE DRAGON and MR. BURNS

September 24, 2013

9.20.13 – The Blue Dragon at the BAM Next Wave Festival is a spinoff from The Dragons’ Trilogy, the two-part six-hour epic that I saw at the Los Angeles Festival in 1990, my first exposure to the work of Quebecois director Robert Lepage. Set in Quebec, Toronto, and Vancouver, the trilogy told a sprawling story about the influence of Chinese immigrants on Canadian culture in the 20th century. The Blue Dragon concerns two Canadian characters from the trilogy 25 years later in Shanghai, art dealer Pierre and vacationing ad executive Marie, where they interact with a young Chinese artist named Xiao Ling, Pierre’s protégée and lover. Pierre and Marie married for a lark as kids and never bothered to divorce; now Marie wants a child and has come to adopt – or, more accurately, buy one on the black market.

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The Blue Dragon
contains all the things I admire about Lepage’s work – the visual splendor, where the sets and images are constantly transforming from one thing to another; the narrative ambition to connect vastly disparate worlds; the low-key humanity at the heart of the performances. I’d never seen Lepage perform onstage until now, only on film, and he has a compelling intimacy and beautiful speaking voice. The works he creates with his company (first Theatre Repere, now Ex Machina) always contain little nuggets of research on topics that seem offhand but wind up pertinent to the plot (Chinese calligraphy is a big one here). The play is co-written with Marie Michaud, who plays Marie, and Xiao Ling is played by Tai Wei Foo, a Singaporean dancer who does two gorgeous dances that show off the mesmerizing and original lighting design by Louis-Xavier Gagnon-Lebrun. My only quarrel with the play is dramaturgical – the set-up of the story is compelling and rich, but at a certain point the authors realized that they’ve set up an easy plot resolution (Xiao Ling becomes pregnant, Marie wants a child, so…) and then contort the story to avoid landing at what seems like a perfectly obvious and reasonable conclusion, and the contortions don’t make sense. I love that the script is published as a graphic novel (below), which I bought at the BAM bookstall.

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9.21.13 – Saturday afternoon I had the pleasure of interviewing Lepage live in front of an audience as part of BAM’s Iconic Artist Talk series at the Hillman Studio in the new Fisher Building. He talked a little bit about his early training with Alain Knapp and the influence of artists like Lawrence and Anna Halprin, Ariane Mnouchkine, and Pina Bausch on his aesthetic taste in composing theater. A period of time he spent working in Japan directing opera made a life-changing impression on him. And he talked a little about the tetralogy he is at work on now called Playing Cards, which concerns the impact of the Arab world on global culture.

9-21 lepage et moi
9.22.13 – Something told me I had to see Anne Washburn’s play Mr. Burns – a post-electric play at Playwrights Horizons, directed by Steve Cosson (of The Civilians) with music by Michael Friedman. It’s a smart, unusual variant on the much-used theme of “what if X-and-such cultural artifact was the only thing left after the apocalypse and creatures from other planets relied on it to make sense of life on Earth?” After nuclear plant explosions have wiped out the electrical grid, survivors form community around recalling episodes of The Simpsons (which are themselves repositories of a dense assortment of cultural references). The first two acts are intriguing and surprising; the third goes on about three times longer than is needed to make its point. The cast is one of those high-powered ensembles of Off-Broadway heavyweights: Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Susannah Flood, Gibson Frazier, Matthew Maher, Nedra McClyde, Jennifer Morris, Colleen Werthmann, and Sam Breslin Wright (the characters are named after them). This is one of those brave Playwrights Horizons productions that divides its core audience – some people who get the cultural references love it, some people hate it, not much in between. As usual, the theater has made available a bunch of cool background material for people who want to know more about the show — online you can listen to separate podcasts with the author and composer, and at the theater after the show you can pick up a copy of a long illuminating interview with Washburn by artistic director Tim Sanford.

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