The wrenching ache of a voice crying out in pain. The electric tremolo of a voice in need, and the fear it elicits in the listener. The way our heartbeat actually slows when an affecting song gets inside of us. The quiet and often unheard melodies of our everyday interactions. This is the stuff of Robert Lepage
's new work, Lipsynch
, now running at BAM as part of the Next Wave Festival
. And though the piece clocks in at a bit over nine hours (including intervals and a dinner break if you see the marathon performance), for those eager to see a rare and ambitious work that intelligently and at times beautifully explores the many ways in which we use and make sense of the human voice, I would say it's worth the time.
So much of Robert Lepage
's work demands that the audience listen to sound instead of simply listening for words. A Québécois artist, Lepage's work has always dealt in multicultural and multinational characters and ideas. The kind of code-switching that is second nature to bilingual people is second nature to every play of Lepage's that I have seen. In his career-making production of The Dragons' Trilogy
in the mid-1980s, he and the company performed two-thirds of the piece in French in London, without subtitles or translation.
The actors in Lipsynch
speak in at least five different languages that I could count–Polish, English, French, German, and Spanish, not to mention a heavy Scottish brogue that many in the audience struggled to understand. Most of this work is subtitled, but not every moment. Those in the audience who don't speak every language being spoken on stage are forced to listen to the changing tempo and musicality of the speech in order to glean some meaning. It's a disorienting experience at first, but when you surrender to your own ignorance, there's a great deal to be discovered. A number of people leave feeling that they understood most of what was being communicated even if they couldn't always understand what was being said.
Lepage opens Lipsynch
's first act with the character of Ada (Rebecca Blankenship) singing from Henryk Górecki
’s Symphony No. 3, known as the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs
. A symphony in three movements for orchestra and solo soprano (in Polish, incidentally), the overarching theme of the piece focuses on the separation of a child and a parent. Lepage uses this same theme as the foundation of his theatrical composition in nine acts.
Ada is a world-traveling opera singer on a flight to Montreal from Europe. While walking down the aisle of the plane she discovers that a young mother holding an infant has died. Over the course of the first act Ada successfully pursues information about the orphaned child, in the end adopting the boy who grows into one of the main characters in the show. Various people that Ada and her son Jeremy (Rick Miller) encounter in their lives become the parallel plots that orbit the central story of an adoptive mother trying to guide her son through his life and the son's search for the life and voice of his birth mother.
Near the end of the play the song at the opening is reprised, this time with translation. In that moment, Ada sings on behalf of herself and on behalf of the dead birth mother whose voice has at last been heard, both singing of the loss of their son, the same boy who was a son to both of them. It's a deft trick to give us the words then, when we already instinctually intuit the deep longing and sorrow in the music. And that's the trick of the whole play, really.
It would take thousands of words to critique all nine acts in this play–each of which is named for and tells the story of one of the nine principal characters while simultaneously pushing the plot forward. Subplots emerge, other searches are underway, other losses and gains are vocalized. What becomes absolutely clear throughout this production is that Lepage continues to be among the greatest living masters of stagecraft. His sets and scene changes are feats of wonder, as they have been in all of his work.
Designer Jean Hazel and the army of black-clad stage managers and stagehands are every bit a part of the piece, occasionally arriving in costume or with lines in order to choreograph the movement of the set pieces. Whether you see the marathon performance or the show spread over three nights, make sure to stay in the theater for at least part of a couple of the intervals, particularly the first one, to watch as the set pieces are dismantled or morphed into something new. These transitions are often as interesting as the action of the play and they add to the layering effect that the show creates.
Lepage also has a deft touch when it comes to his use of projection and multimedia. Many contemporary theater artists have long been struggling to figure out how and when to incorporate these different media into their work. Oftentimes for those with less experience, the projections end up detracting from the work, distracting from the action taking place elsewhere on stage, or becoming the only thing that is taking place on stage, which diminishes the live experience and the story being told. Instead Lepage uses media as another piece of stage magic, replacing backdrops with projection, heightening the tension by making us question where a voice is coming from (whether it's recorded or live), and making use of live camera feeds to accentuate certain disassociative moments–where we literally watch a character's body, voice, emotion, and thoughts splinter and feed back into one another.
Lepage's real mastery though is in evoking and calling attention to the emotional life of his characters. There are a couple of chapters in the book of interviews with Lepage that Rémy Charest compiled, Connecting Flights
, that touch on Lepage's idea of stylized emotion. He uses Brechtian
technique, a choreographer's eye, and a focus on the audience's interpretation of a moment to achieve the desired effect. For him it's irrelevant if the actor is feeling sorrow, but rather that we in the audience interpret the actors movements, gestures, voice, and facial expressions as sorrow. It's a switch that borrows a lot from theatrical tradition outside of North America. Time contracts and expands in his work, he paces the revelation of a certain feeling in such a way that we cannot overlook it, but are also given time to consider it, to really breath it in a couple of times, not just one quick inhale.
All that said, there are some weaknesses in this show. The work was constructed collaboratively, and like much collaborative work it suffers from being too lengthy at times, containing superfluous material, and getting lost on tangents. It's a very contemporary method of building a piece that's still popular, and used more and more often to acknowledge the fact that theater by its very nature is a collaborative process. What seems to make the work so successful, despite some of the hurdles that are inevitable in this style of work, is the strength of Lepage's vision as the director and editor of the many voices.
There are two other weaknesses in the show worth noting. The first is that it takes a long time for the plot to reveal itself. The first six acts have a kind of introductory feeling, like we're stuck at the beginning, learning why we're meeting this cast of characters. It's not really until the seventh act that we plunge into a traditional, highly accessible plot surrounding a detective (Lepage often leans on whodunit structures in his work). The seventh act is also an example of the second weakness in the show–too much exposition in a few of the character's stories. In order to push the piece forward we are spoon-fed information in monologues and expository dialogue that drags a bit, especially after being in our seats for so long.
Taken as a whole, however, and in spite of its imperfections, Lipsynch
is a successful work that asks bold questions about the way we live in the world and challenges the audience to rethink their own experience. The other remarkable feat in this work is that, despite its epic length, it is highly approachable. You need not know elaborate information about theater or art history in order to understand this show. Lepage works very hard to make this the case and it's clearly the reason why he's often courted to do more commercial work like creating shows for Cirque du Soleil
or Peter Gabriel's tours. If you can see it, if you're up for the long ride, and if you can afford the tickets, it's worth the investment. And outside of BAM's Next Wave festival, you're unlikely to have many other opportunities to see Lepage's work here in New York.
(photo credit: Érick Labbé)