by Byron Woods
Never slight a person with a vivid imagination.
Perhaps that’s the largest takeaway from Robert Lepage’s frequently inspired, technically innovative—but still overlong—one-person performance, THE ANDERSEN PROJECT, which closes tonight at UNC Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall.
It’s tempting to call this intermissionless two-hour performance a theatrical roman a clef, except that one of the names apparently hasn’t been changed at all. For on the basis of earlier interviews with the Canadian quintuple threat—stage director, playwright, film director, scenic artist and actor—one gets the definite sense that some experience with the Paris Opera (possibly his 2001 production there of Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust?) left an extremely bad taste in his mouth.
Et voila! (as the French themselves might say): this subsequent 2005 work depicts the dilemmas a Canadian librettist encounters upon being manipulated by an unscrupulous artistic director. At the Paris Opera.
During the course of The Andersen Project, the writer twice addresses an audience at the Opera—standing with his back us, but facing a projection of the famous, filigreed three-story house prominently featured in the film version of Amadeus. He is talking with them about a work they’ve been prevented from seeing on this particular evening. Given the visual riches and technical coups this work regularly scores, it doesn’t spoil much here to note that, the second time, the building is going up in flames.
Not that Lepage need worry at this point about burning any bridges behind him. His Canadian Opera production of The Nightingale and Other Short Fables (also based on the works of Hans Christian Andersen) performed at Brooklyn Academy of Music at the beginning of this month. His work, The Blue Dragon, premiered at London’s Barbican Theater in February. And the Metropolitan Opera will stage his version of Wagner’s Ring Cycle—featuring 3-D projections on stage—in April 2012, after a production of Siegfried there in October.
In this full-throated mockery of petty artistic intrigues played out across international lines, Yves Jacques ably performs all of the characters, including the hapless librettist; the manipulative but disturbed artistic director, Arnaud; and a Banksy-inspired graffiti artist whose unexpected first appearance generated whistles and appreciative applause from a stunned audience on Thursday night.
Lepage’s satiric sequences segue back and forth between dismissive lunch meetings between the writer and Arnaud, a conference that goes no better when artistic partners in Denmark start getting cold feet, and absurd, impromptu moments in a peep show venue one must apparently pass through on the ground floor of the apartment building where the librettist has been sequestered.
Scattered among these are laughable sections from a criminally underfunded—and exceedingly minimal—production of the Andersen tale, “The Dryad,” in which an unseen narrator intones a script far too generously padded with self-congratulatory references to the City of Light.
Lepage’s infatuation with frames, projections and other forms of technical stage magic is repeatedly evinced here, in sections including a vertiginous trip up a flight of stairs, a series of dog walks, and an unexpectedly psychedelic train ride. But for all these technical gimcracks, one of the most effective moments in this production is a simple shadow-play rendition of the Andersen tale, “The Shadow.” Using nothing more technologically advanced than a single table lamp, Lepage’s character eerily embodies the uncanny tale of a man’s problematic relationship with his all too literal dark side — as a bedtime story to a little girl that takes on a darker, prophetic edge.
When a simple, single light is all it takes for an artist to show a treacherous man his future, the message is clear—a vivid imagination is nothing to be trifled with. Regional audiences can see that imagination on display for themselves, tonight at Memorial Hall.