Wehle's World

By Philippa Wehle

The Festival TransAmériques, Montreal’s
New International Festival of Dance and Theater, June 2007

The Festival de théâtre des Amériques no longer exists, but the new Festival TransAmériques is very much in place. Directed by Marie-Hélène Falcon, founder and director of the Festival des Amériques, this new festival took place in Montreal from May 23 to June 7. As with the Festival des Amériques, the Festival Transamériques promotes the work of cutting edge contemporary artists, but it now features both dance as well as theater and it will be an annual rather than a biennial event.

This inaugural festival presented more than twenty dance and theater works, a total of 105 performances over a period of 16 days. There were North American premieres of Lepage’s new epic saga Lipsynch, Rimini Protokoll/Stefan Kaegi’s documentary theater piece, Mnemopark, featuring minature trains model railroad hobbyists from Switzerland, Brazilian choreographer Lia Rodrigues’ powerful dance performance piece Incarnat, inspired by the company’s work in a slum in central Rio, and Romeo Castellucci’s Hey Girl!, his latest drama of movement and gesture. Denis Marleau’s Fantasmagories Technologiques I, II, III, a trilogy of plays performed by virtual actors, was presented together for the first time in Montreal along with other inventive work from Canada, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium.

Although I was not able to attend the whole festival, I was fortunate to see three captivating new works: Robert Lepage’s Lipsynch, Denis Marleau’s Fantasmagories Technologiques I, II, III, and Romeo Castellucci’s Hey Girl!, all three definitely worth the trip.

I had seen several of Castellucci’s and his Societas Raffaello Sanzio company’s epic works in the past, with their multiple “characters,” fascinating mechanical devices, exploding rabbits and live animals on the stage. In contrast Hey Girl! is an unexpectedly intimate piece with only one featured player, an “ordinary” young girl (Castellucci’s description), the kind you might meet in any urban setting, hanging with her girlfriends at a bus stop, and greeting them with the familiar “Hey Girl!” This girl is not just any ordinary girl, however. She is the new Eve, born into a new world in an unforgettable opening scene. Smoke fills the cavernous space, loud sounds rumble and lights flash. As the smoke clears, an amorphous pink form lying on a long table is slowly revealed. It begins to move. Soon a hand appears, then an arm, and finally a nude female figure, writhing in the pangs of birth, emerges from this gelatinous rose-colored placenta. Like a new-born colt, she awkwardly struggles to her feet, and walks tentatively over to a wall, her back turned to the audience. This wisp of a girl, played by actress Silvia Costa, has awakened to a threatening world of symbolic objects scattered here and there, a sword, a large drum, a mirror, pillows, and a gigantic self-portrait by Van Eyck. It is a world through which she must make her way as a woman, bravely at times, in fear and trepidation at others.

Castellucci’s theater is stunningly visual and filled with sound (crackling noises, loud thunderous booms, rumblings and roars). Words are few and far between. When Silvia Costa does speak, her voice is barely audible. She whispers to herself as if she fears that words spoken out loud would carry too many conflicting meanings. In place of speech long lists of words, ordinary, everyday words - tree, house, train, dog, foot, butter - are projected on a screen above the action and the familiar lines from Romeo and Juliet “, … a rose by any other name would smell as sweet…” are uttered .as if to suggest that words are only meaningless conventions.

Dressed now in jeans and a simple white tee shirt, Costa seems a frail and vulnerable adolescent, unsure of what is expected of her. One minute she vigorously beats a large drum loudly broadcasting her arrival into this world. The next she is in tears. Light falls on a sword lying on the stage. It is long, shiny and heavy, too heavy for a young girl to carry. She kneels down before the sword, hands shaking and body trembling, determined to pick it up. The sword is a symbol of power and she hates symbols, she tells us, yet her fate is to deal with them, first in the form of such famous historical and fictional women as Joan of Arc, Romeo’s Juliet, Iphigenia, and the Virgin Mary whom she must confront along with Marie Antoinette, Mary Stewart and Ann Bolen, different queens who had their heads cut off. Somehow she finds the strength to pick up the sword and momentarily turn into Joan of Arc, but instead of using the sword to fight the enemy in armored combat, she demystifies its power by sprinkling it with Chanel No. 5.

She must also do battle with the men who have ruled over women for centuries, not only with the slave driver who puts her in chains, but also with a large crowd of angry men who trap her in a dark corner of the stage and beat her with pillows, hitting her over and over again as she gasps for breath. When she finally emerges into the light, she is dazed and confused - “What am I supposed to do?,” she weeps. “What am I supposed to say?” - but she does not give up. Wearing a large mask, a replica of her own head, she continues her journey, but this time she is not alone. Taking off the mask, she places it on the head of a young black woman (played by Sonia Beltran Napoles). Like Costa, she is dressed in white tee and jeans and she repeats some of the movements and gestures we have seen Costa execute. She is clearly her black double. She may also be her savior. Covered in glowing reflective silver paint that looks like a suit of armor, she wields the sword, waving it in the air, ready for battle. Joining her, Costa dons a pair of protective metal gloves (similar to the type worn by Medieval knights) and smashes the multiple panes of glass hanging in front of her. Van Eyck’s giant self portrait hangs over them, a threat to their new-won liberation, but at least it is turned upside down. Perhaps there is hope for Costa and Napoles, stand-ins for all women throughout history who have had to submit to patriarchal authority.
While Castellucci’s theater is primarily a theater of visual and sonic stunning, with an emphasis on gesture and movement, Denis Marleau’s recent work shows his interest in an audio narrative theater devoid of gestures and movement. His is a new type of theater, a video-art installation theatrical form. With the help of video artists and sound designer Nancy Tobin, Marleau has perfected a system by which video images of live actors playing different characters are projected onto blank masks placed on top of stationary dummies so that the audience experiences disembodied talking heads rather than live performers.

Marleau first used this technique in 1997 in his Fernando Pessoa’s Three Last Days in which he juxtaposed the actor playing Pessoa (Paul Savoie) with Pessoa’s alter egos (real actors wearing Savoie’s face). In his Fantasmagories Technologiques I, II, III, a trilogy composed of Dors mon petit enfant, by Jon Fosse, Comédie, by Samuel Beckett, and Maeterlinck’s Les Aveugles, there are no longer any flesh and blood actors at all.

The trilogy takes place in three separate theaters in one building. For Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse’s 15-minute play Dors mon petit enfant (Sleep My Little Child), the audience is led into a large brightly lit white room where what appears to be three little dolls wearing skull caps and nothing on their feet, are sitting on a ledge above the standing audience. At first they seem to be inanimate dolls but soon one realizes that their eyes and mouths are moving and that their faces are the faces of flesh and blood actors (Paul Savoie, Céline Bonnier and Ginette Morin) projected onto the dolls’ heads. “Where are we?”asks one of the little figures. “I don’t have a clue,” says another. There are no doors and no windows in this no man’s land, somewhere before life begins or just after it ends. “Do we have to stay here forever?” one asks. The answer is “Yes,” but they don’t seem unhappy about it. Rather they seem content to go on doing nothing but talk quietly among themselves for eternity.

In contrast to the luminous space of Dors mon petit enfant, Beckett’s 35 minute one-act drama Comédie takes place in darkness. Instead of three little dolls, there are three disembodied heads, a man and two women, stuck forever in three large urns. In accordance with Beckett’s specifications, husband is in the middle, his wife on one side, his mistress on the other. There is also a fourth presence, an intimidating spotlight that moves rapidly from one to the other, lighting each one’s face when it’s his or her turn to deliver their soliloquies about their relationships. Sometimes all three are lit when their soliloquies overlap.

The adulterous husband, the jealous wife and the mistress in competition for him are familiar figures. Their story is well known: man hides his infidelity from his wife, confesses to wife, lies to wife, lies to mistress and finally leaves both. This is familiar material indeed but what is fascinating about this piece is that these are not just disembodied talking heads as in other Beckett productions, but the heads are not flesh and blood either. They are video images of the actors projected onto masks, thus adding an even more unworldly dimension to Beckett’s already strange trio trapped forever in their urns. The experience is most unsettling.
The final piece of Marleau’s trilogy is his adaptation of Maeterlinck’s 1890 drama, Les Aveugles (The Blind). Entering a pitch dark space, the audience feels its way along the walls to the benches where they we will sit, already feeling like the blind people they are about to meet. Twelve faces soon emerge from the obscurity. They seem to hang there in the dark, luminous effigies of six women (played by Cécile Bonnier) and six men (played by Paul Savoie). Though the women all have Bonniere’s face and the men, Savoie’s, each one is different. Some are old, some are young, some more loquacious than others. They are lost in a forest, far from the hospice they live in, and their guide, a priest at the hospice, has disappeared. For forty-five minutes they wait for his return, speculating on what could have happened to him. Perhaps he has gone to get food; surely he will be back soon. Should they try to move? They are cold and hungry and the sounds of the forest - water dripping and leaves rustling - along with their own breathing and the barks of a dog, become increasingly frightening. The guide will never return since he lies dead among them and they are trapped in darkness forever.

There may be no action in Marleau’s trilogy but the pieces are far from static. There is a strangeness about them that fascinates and draws one in, but at the same time one is left with a strong sense of sadness and a keen awareness of man’s isolation.

Robert Lepage and Ex Machina’s new work Lipsynch, on the other hand, is pure soap opera on a grand scale, mixing comedy, tragedy, farce and melodrama. Composed of seven stories about seven lives that unfold, intersect, separate and reunite in seven sections, the piece, as presented at the Festival TransAmériques was five and a half hours long (including intermissions). Like previous Lepage epic sagas, billed as “works in progress,” the version of Lipsynch seen in Montreal is far from being finished. Some parts and some characters are more developed than others, and the piece is constantly being reevaluated and tweaked by its authors (Lepage collaborators: actors, designers, technicians, and many others). The piece will be expanded to a 9-hour version in its final form.

Spread over a period of some seventy years, the stories told in Lipsynch move from Frankfort to London, Quebec, Nicaragua, Hamburg, the Canary Islands and Montreal. They are performed in four languages, English, French, German, and Spanish, sometimes with supertitles sometimes without.

There are seven main characters. Ada Weber, the great German soprano, Jeremy, her adopted son, who becomes a filmmaker, Thomas, her husband, a brain surgeon, Marie, a singer from Quebec, Sebastien, a sound studio technician from Tenenerife, Lupe, a young Nicaraguan woman, biological mother of Jeremy, who dies on a plane and Elizabeth, an English woman being stalked by Tony Briggs, an actor, and just possibly Jeremy’s biological father. An international cast of nine plays these roles along with the roles of multiple other characters.

A simple but adaptable set, composed of four metal structures on wheels is all that Lepage needs to move between continents and span years in the lives of his protagonists. Set changes are done in full light thanks to twenty some technicians who dismantle and rebuild the set in front of us, creating first the interior of an airplane, then an apartment in London, then a train and a rock concert. As much a part of the show as any other element, they are fascinating to watch as they transform a house in Quebec City to a subway car, then a film studio, a restaurant, and even the Pope’s apartments in the Vatican.

Lipsynch opens with opera singer Ada Weber singing a sorrowful song from Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 “though you are already leaving me.” It is a Mother’s lament for the loss of her son. When she has finished, the stage opens up to the interior of an airplane on its way to Montreal. The stewardess is serving drinks. We hear a baby crying in the rear of the plane. Ada goes to see what is wrong and finds that the baby’s mother has died. She takes the baby and gives it to the stewardess, who places it on a seat and pulls the curtain across the scene. The technicians then swarm onto the stage, dismantle the plane and transform its middle section into Ada’s apartment in London. She is calling Lufthansa to find out what happened to the baby. She ends up speaking to Thomas, a medical student working part-time at the police station in Frankfort. As coincidence has it in Lepage’s work, it seems that Thomas attended her Gorecki concert and is a great admirer. They exchange phone numbers, and later run into each other on a London subway. They will marry and later divorce but this is just one example of the many lives Lepage weaves together throughout his fascinating piece.

Throughout the years and complex life experiences of these many characters, from one episode to the next, a common theme emerges. It concerns the nature of the human voice, its many ramifications and manifestations. “Speech is part of our identity,” Thomas announces as he transforms himself into Stephen Hawking, the famous British physicist who lost his ability to speak. But thanks to a computer program, he adds, Hawking is able to communicate, albeit “with an American accent.”

The voice is what defines us and many of the characters in Lipsynch are searching for lost voices, their own or others. Jeremy hopes to recover the voice and person of his biological mother through the making of a film about her, but it can only be fiction. Marie tries to recapture her deceased father’s voice with the help of a deaf woman whom she hires to read his lips in silent home movies from her childhood. Marie undergoes an operation on her brain that causes her to lose her ability to speak but not her voice. She has to learn to talk again and then finds work dubbing films in a studio where her boss modulates Marie’s voice so that she becomes her own Father’s voice. There is also a fascinating old woman with Alzheimer's who has trouble talking and finding her words but is still able to captivate our undivided attention. Some may not be able to speak in their own voice (actors are dubbed, Hawking uses a computer) while other voices we hear are artificially produced such as the voice of a talking refrigerator and microwave oven that says “Hi I’m Stan” when opened.

In one stunningly visual sequence after the other, Lepage follows the trajectories of his pivotal characters across decades and as many countries. He achieves startling effects not just with technological tricks but also by using the actors’ bodies in unusual ways. In a scene with Ada and Jeremy on the subway, for example, when the subway stops and people get off or on, Lepage simulates the subway moving forward by having the performers move backwards on the platform. Equally clever is a scene with Ada and the baby Jeremy on a train. One minute Jeremy is a crying baby, the next, an obnoxious teenager, and finally a grown man, all this magically achieved by the actor playing Jeremy hiding behind the seats and quickly changing his clothes as well as his height. .

Ultimately we return to the core story with its three participants Ada, Lupe (Jeremy’s biological mother) and Jeremy. Ada has been given a video of Lupe at age 17 telling her story of how she became a prostitute in Homburg. It is a sad story of how she was sold by her uncle to German procurers, who raped her and forced her to become a prostitute. The stage lights dim and we are back at the beginning with Ada dressed as she was when she sang Gorecki’s mournful song, but this time, Lupe and Jeremy are present. Ada lifts up Lupe and tenderly holds her in her arms for a moment. She then hands her to Jeremy who holds her and then gently puts her down. The final image is of two mothers and their beloved son, “sharing their wounds “at last, in the words of Gorecki’s songs.

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