Toronto has enjoyed a steady diet of Robert Lepage's genius in the last three years. The Andersen Project at Canadian Stage, Eonnagata at the Sony Centre, Lipsynch at Luminato, The Nightingale at Canadian Opera and Cirque du Soleil's Totem at the Port Lands have served up a buffet of his work, from the avant-garde to the crowd-pleasing.
Now Mirvish Productions has gotten in on the trend, bringing Lepage's 2008 Chinese-themed play The Blue Dragon to the Royal Alexandra Theatre as part of its subscription season. It's the perfect choice. For the uninitiated – like those Mirvish patrons more accustomed to commercial fare – it's an excellent introduction to all that die-hard Lepage fans cherish about the man's work.
That is, it tells a small, deeply human story which elegantly mirrors the larger world. And it does so with stage artistry so fluidly, breathtakingly inventive that it makes even big-budget Broadway musicals look dull. Or to compare it to the hit Mirvish show that just closed at the neighbouring Princess of Wales Theatre, The Blue Dragon is a Mozart flute solo next to Mary Poppins's blaring brass band.
In this semi-sequel to their 1985 work The Dragons' Trilogy, Lepage and his co-writer, Marie Michaud, catch up with a character last seen departing Canada for China. Now, a couple of decades on, expat Quebec artist Pierre Lamontagne (Henri Chassé) has all but given up on painting and instead runs a gallery in Shanghai. In classic midlife-crisis mode, he's taken a younger lover, gifted artist Xiao Ling (Tai Wei Foo), who is also his protégée. He discovered her working in a Hong Kong tattoo parlour, where she gave him the titular blue dragon that adorns his back.
Claire Forêt (Michaud), Pierre's old art-school classmate and one-time lover, is undergoing midlife pangs of her own. Alone and in her 40s, she's arrived in China to adopt a baby. Her reunion with Pierre digs up old feelings and a secret that threatens his relationship with Xiao Ling.
That's the simple human story, acted here with understatement by Chassé (in the role originated by Lepage) and with sardonic humour and quiet pathos by a superb Michaud. When her Claire returns empty-handed from Nanchang, having failed to bond with her prospective child, you feel the crushing sadness of a woman who has spent her life pursuing love and being rejected. She does, however, make an unexpected connection with Xiao Ling, played appealingly by Tai Wei Foo. Tai also doubles as the show's dancer-choreographer, performing between scenes both in a graceful traditional Chinese style and in the aggressive martial manner of a rifle-toting Maoist.
Throughout the show, those past images of China bump up against the current reality of a communist state with capitalist ambitions. The change is most keenly felt by Pierre in the arts enclave where he lives and works, which is now being threatened by rampant development. Although Michaud and Lepage never directly address China's artistic repression, the fate of Pierre's home eerily foreshadows the demolition of controversial artist Ai Weiwei's Shanghai studio last year.
All of the above is rich fodder for Lepage the magician-director, who once again combines theatrical sleight of hand with striking imagery that suggests an animated painting or a live film.
This is a play about artists and Lepage stages it on a two-tiered set by Michel Gauthier that suggests an art gallery – even when it serves as, variously, an airport, a sushi bar, a train platform, a boat deck and Pierre's tiny sky-lit apartment, among other locales. The set, with sliding, steel-like curtains, is often reduced to smaller rectangles so that scenes take on the appearance of paintings. And it also frames actual artwork, from Pierre's calligraphy demonstration that opens the play to an exhibition of Xiao Ling's pop-art-flavoured self-portraits. The dialogue is occasionally in French and Mandarin, so subtitles are projected between the tiers in a style and font that also makes it look as though we're viewing the text above the panels of a comic strip.
Changes in the weather play a role in the storytelling. At different times the amazing lighting of Louis-Xavier Gagnon-Lebrun and projections of David Leclerc whip up lightning storms, driving rain and a delicate snowfall. Sound designer Jean-Sébastien Côté, meanwhile, uses Chinese-style percussion in a rattling cacophony to conjure up hordes of people in public places, or as subtle, precise punctuation for intimate scenes.
The Blue Dragon begins in a blue mood, but it ends with a witty coup de théâtre and some warm rays of hope. Even if it didn't, you'd still leave the theatre wide-eyed and buoyant. As the die-hards among us know, Lepage's playful genius does that to you.
The Blue Dragon
- Written by Marie Michaud and Robert Lepage
- Translated by Michael Mackenzie
- Directed by Robert Lepage
- Starring Henri Chassé, Marie Michaud and Tai Wei Foo
- An Ex Machina production
- At the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto
The Blue Dragon runs until Feb. 19.
Special to The Globe and Mail