THEATRE REVIEW: NEEDLES AND OPIUM
Pictured: Marc Labrèche
Special to TorSun
28 NOV 2013
Over the past two decades, Toronto audiences have become addicted to the works of Robert Lepage, bedazzled as much by his unique stage vision as by the sometimes rambling stories he chooses to tell. So, it is small wonder that people are lining up to catch his re-working of NEEDLES AND OPIUM, a play — actually, more of a meditation — he created more than two decades ago on the heels of a particularly painful romantic break-up.
Lepage himself created the pivotal role of Robert in the original, to be replaced eventually after an extensive tour by Marc Labrèche. Happily, Labrèche returns to this re-imagining, currently playing, under the aegis of Canadian Stage, at the Bluma Appel Theatre, bringing not just a depth of experience but the gravitas he's picked up in the ensuing time as well. And this time out, Lepage, serving solely in the roles of writer/director, has created a much richer environment in which Robert's story unfold, — a three-sided half-cube that seems to be in almost constant motion, as Robert's life spins ever more out of control.
He is in Paris, when it begins, in a seedy if somewhat historic hotel room, brought there from his Quebec home to narrate a film about the American jazz great Miles Davis (played by Wellesley Robertson III), whose love affair with Paris introduced him to some new and troubling demons. At the same time as Davis was falling under Paris' spell, the French artist Jean Cocteau (played by Labrèche) had fallen under the spell of New York while dealing with his own addictions — and in NEEDLES AND OPIUM, Lepage defies time and place to bring these three disparate characters together, offering a unique perspective on addiction, pain and art that is rarely anything less than riveting.
Which is a good thing, here, as Lepage still eschews almost everything that smacks of conventional linear story telling here, instead overlaying and layering the three stories he's trying to tell with snippets of Cocteau's poetic prose and his drawings, excerpts of Davis' music, clips of Jeanne Moreau in Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows and of chanteuse Juliette Greco, who shared a long romance with the troubled jazz legend. The end result is both state of the art and state of mind.Perhaps the most notable change Lepage has wrought in this revisiting however is in making Davis an actual presence in the story instead of consigning him to mere musical background — and it is a powerful one.
But finally, the real star of the show, with all due respect to the two fine performers, is the constantly shifting set-piece that magically transforms itself from street-scape, to hotel room to recording studio to airplane. That said, it is not quite as fluid as one might wish in its magical transitions, given too often to loud bangs and periodic groans in its revolutions. For anyone who remembers some of the early difficulties in Lepage's ongoing love affair with technology, these are niggling, albeit still intrusive, concerns — and in the main, NEEDLES AND OPIUM makes its points with typical Lepage style.