Technicians cluster like bees around the compact circular stage. The small central stage elevator is up, so I can see into the doughnut-shaped crawl space underneath. It's lined with costumes, props and other gear the six cast members and seven technicians will need to run Spades, the first part of Ex Machina's Playing Cards tetralogy, directed by Robert Lepage. The stage surface stands a bit more than a metre from the floor, and the cramped space below concentrates all the functions that a normal theatre would spread through the wings, dressing rooms and areas for props and makeup.
The stage, which comes alive for the first Toronto showing of Spades on Wednesday evening, is made of aluminum and wood, and it's not fancy to look at. But it's going to serve as a kind of spaceship for Lepage and his company, as they tour Playing Cards for the next several years through 13 partnering venues. From this tiny craft, a wealth of stories will emerge from holes and trap doors, illuminated by a circular lighting deck that really does look like something from an old space-invasion movie.
With Playing Cards, Lepage has forsaken many of the resources of a proscenium stage, which he exploited to the hilt for his recent production of Richard Wagner's Ring cycle at the Metropolitan Opera. He went very big in New York, with an 45-tonne set and leading-edge interactive videos, and caught the fiercest sustained criticism of his career: "witless" and "resolutely shallow" were some of the terms used.
Lepage seems unconcerned by the flak. "I enjoyed the whole experience, the shows are getting better and better, and they're going to be restaged next year," he says.
He also has a Met premiere coming up next fall: Thomas Adès's contemporary adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest, which will be seen first at Festivald'opéra de Québec this summer.
Spades is not a retrenchment in the face of adversity: Lepage began planning this minimal show well before any of the Ring was seen. He is returning to the leaner, less-opulent kind of theatre-making he did 25 years ago, before his commissions from Cirque du Soleil, the Met and the theatre consortiums that often seem willing to take whatever he wishes to offer.
"We're going back to the Dragon's Trilogy or Tectonic Plates approach, of opening up the space a bit more, of not being confined on a stage," he says. "When you're working in the round, you can't hide anything, you can't have walls, you can't project anything. But sometimes the solutions you find are more theatrical than with a regular stage."
Spades is set in Las Vegas, during the weekend in 2003 when Celine Dion opened her big permanent show and George W. Bush began his shock and awe bombings of Baghdad. Lepage was in Vegas at the time, working on Ka with Cirque du Soleil, and saw a vivid concentration of themes related to dreams and gambles, to armies roiling up deserts, and to historic encounters of Arab and Western peoples.
"It's closer to a Robert Altman kind of storytelling than anything else," Lepage says, referring to the many strands of narrative that intersect in one location. His Vegas is a trilingual, multidimensional place, where the high-rolling gamblers and businessmen speak English, the Québécois tourists speak French, and the worker bees of the Vegas dreamworld speak Spanish. The 30 characters and their narratives were developed with and by the six actors who play them.
"I give them a bone to chew on, and everyone kind of jumps on it and does their own thing," Lepage says.
The biggest bone was the idea that the standard four-suit deck of cards could act as a framing concept. It's freighted with evocative traditional associations, he says: spades (or swords) with the military; hearts with belief and religion; diamonds with wealth and business; clubs with manual labour.
Swedish dramaturge Peder Bjurman suggested tapping the further complexities of tarot, which Lepage says have become an important structural element.
Spades was first seen in May at Madrid's Teatro Circo Price, one of 13 round theatres in the 360° Project consortium that commissioned the work (along with Toronto's Luminato, which is presenting it in the rectangular Imperial Oil Opera Theatre). It's still a work in progress: Lepage trimmed almost half an hour during the Madrid performances.
"The paint is pretty wet right now," he says. "But it's already a more mature show than Seven Streams of the RiverOta or Lipsynch were at this stage." The three other parts of the cycle will use the same set, with alterations as needed.
"In the next components, we'll see more of the culture clashes that have been going on since the Crusades," he says, and that he sees reborn between the West and China. All the world's a stage, and sometimes even a small circular surface can span the globe.
Spade runs June 13 through 17 at the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Centre's Imperial Oil Opera Theatre. Robert Lepage's production of Thomas Adès's The Tempest plays Festival d'opéra de Québec July 26 through Aug. 1.