No matter how far Robert Lepage’s characters travel, they never escape vexing questions about the knotty nature of identity.
The innovative French-Canadian playwright, actor, and director last collaborated with Cal Performances on The Andersen Project, a slippery, often hilarious, fish-out-of-water tale about Lepage in Paris trying to write a commissioned libretto for a children’s opera based on an obscure Hans Christian Andersen fairy-tale. Lepage and the company Ex Machina return to Berkeley to explore China’s burgeoning early-21st-century art scene in The Blue Dragon at Zellerbach Playhouse June 9–13.
Cowritten with Marie Michaud, the piece is an extension of 1985’s The Dragons’ Trilogy, which gained Lepage his repute as a director with a gift for layering impressionistic narrative over dreamlike imagery. Trilogy, also coauthored by Michaud, concluded with the character Pierre Lamontagne announcing his intention to travel to China, and The Blue Dragon picks up his trail two decades later. “Michaud and I were wondering what happened to the character,” says Lepage, winner of the prestigious 2007 Europe Theatre Prize. “Did he ever make it to China and if yes, how did he get in and what did he witness? This was the pretext.”
The story is set in Shanghai’s Moganshan 50, a former industrial complex that has become the heart of China’s contemporary art scene, in the moment before the economic crisis, when China’s rise seemed to defy gravity, and the art scene was offering endless opportunities for reinventing oneself. The three-character drama features Lepage as Lamontagne, Michaud as a Montreal ad executive drawn to China’s economic promise, and dancer Tai Wei Foo as a Chinese artist exhibiting at Lamontagne’s gallery.
Growing up in Quebec City, Lepage initially dreamed of becoming a geography teacher, and his productions often evoke the bracing disorientation and clarifying insight induced by travel, which he calls “geopoetry.” For Lepage—as for Lamontagne—travel has offered a path out of the insular world of Québécois politics and its sputtering struggle for political separation from anglophone Canada. The Lamontagne character may seem like an alter ego, and Lepage readily acknowledges, “We were all pretty much socialists in school, and Pierre is very much a product of that generation of Quebeckers.”
A master of stagecraft, Lepage has honed a visual vocabulary particularly well suited for interacting with music. He directed and designed the stage décor for Peter Gabriel’s acclaimed Secret World and Growing Up tours. Cirque du Soleil hired Lepage to create the long-running Las Vegas show KÀ at the MGM Grand, and he’s directed opera productions in London, Paris, Tokyo, and San Francisco. For Blue Dragon he was inspired by Peking opera and Chinese calligraphy, creating a series of tableaux to frame the characters’ interactions. As in any Lepage production, plot doesn’t take precedence over mood and texture.
“The whole show has been developed in a graphic novel style, and there are scenes that can remind the viewer of some comic strips,” Lepage says. “We’re kind of blending these two things, this Western way of understanding storytelling, and the traditional Chinese approach of calligraphic writing and expression…. My whole interest is how do you identify with people who go through the same contradictions and paradoxes you go through, but you feel they’re on another planet.”