THE BLUE DRAGON/
Robert Lepage is a theatrical magician and his rare visits to Vancouver are to be savoured. As far as I’m concerned, opening SFU’s beautiful new Woodward’s campus theatre with The Blue Dragon under the auspices of the Cultural Olympiad—directed, co-written by and co-starring Lepage—is the primary justification for holding the Olympics here.
Lepage’s past two visits were with solo shows, The Far Side of the Moon and The Anderson Project, both remarkable spectacles, and in the case of Far Side of the Moon a compelling story as well. The solo format calls for virtuoso acting and effects and probably represents Lepage at his most spectacular. As a three-hander, The Blue Dragon contains a good many scenes of uncharacteristically lengthy, effects-free conversation. Nevertheless, this is a story told with a brilliant visual vocabulary.
Lepage describes The Blue Dragon not as a sequel but as “a spin-off” of The Dragons’ Trilogy, his 1985 breakthrough show, which ended with his character, Quebec artist Pierre Lamontagne, preparing to go to China. Pierre now lives in Shanghai, where he runs a gallery devoted to avant garde Chinese art. He has a visitor, his old girlfriend from The Dragons’ Trilogy, Claire Forêt (co-writer Marie Michaud), who is in China to adopt a baby girl. Turns out Pierre and Claire had married—a marriage of convenience—and Pierre still has some feelings for Claire. Complicating matters, Pierre has a young lover, Xiao Ling (dancer Tai Wei Foo), one of his artists.
At one level the play is a romantic melodrama exploring the love triangle, ramped up a couple of notches when Xiao learns she’s pregnant after Claire’s adoption has failed. Among other things the title signifies winter (the other three dragons of the original trilogy symbolize the other seasons), indicated by regular blasts of stage thunder and lightning, amplifying the melodramatic atmosphere.
The play is also a portrait of various artists. Xiao’s narcissistic art consists of taking pictures of herself with her cellphone to capture her emotions immediately after a call. Pierre and Claire, an ad exec, accuse each other of having sold out their talent. Claire also scolds Pierre for having turned his back on Quebec, which he characterizes as inbred and xenophobic: “I prefer living at the cutting edge of history.” But he goes on to criticize the direction taken by contemporary China—its repressive politics and commodification of everything, symbolized by a hilarious TV clip in which a kung fu movie morphs into a KFC ad, and by an artist who, later in the play, wastes her talent by copying Van Gogh paintings for the export trade.
The combination of these stories is potentially very interesting. But Lepage’s wordy script and leisurely pacing, and the flatness of the acting—the relaxed naturalism of Lepage and the performances of Michaud and non-actor Foo in their second language—all work to diminish the impact of the narrative and its themes. What remains with you are the often astonishing images.
In no particular order I was blown away by Pierre’s calligraphy, which appears in broad swaths on a screen; by a scene in which Pierre has the blue dragon tattooed on his back by a giant projected hand and needle; by Foo’s gorgeous Chinese dances, every movement of which generates splashes of light behind her; by toy trains and real bikes traveling across the stage in front of panoramas of Shanghai; by rain and snow storms; and by sleight-of-hand scene changes. Lepage’s design collaborators from his company, Ex Machina, all do masterful work: Michel Gauthier (set), Jean-Sébastian Côté (sound), Louis-Xavier Gagnon-Lebrun (lighting).
This may not be Robert Lepage at the absolute top of his game, but even second-rank Lepage is miles ahead of almost anything else you’ll ever see on a stage.