Work of overwhelming genius

Wednesday, June 6, 2007, Matt Radz, Gazette Theatre Critic

Posterity is certain to remember Robert Lepage as one of the heralds of the post-litterate age in the theatre. The Word might well have been the beginning, but a master of space and time such as Lepage, or someone very much like him, is sure to be there at the end.

Lepage’s latest creation, Lipsynch, is a dynamic five-hour-plus work of almost overwhelming genius. It pushes the art of stage narrative to the point where it does not merely tell a story but confronts the playgoer with a highly personal vision of the contemporary world. You don’t watch a Lepage epic, it happens to you.

The polyglot work, developed by the director’s Ex Machina company with Théâtre sans Frontières of Newcastle, U.K., is getting its North American premiere at the Festival TransAmériques, with two more sold-out shows remaining, tonight and tomorrow, starting at 6 p.m., at Salle Pierre Mercure of the Centre Pierre Péladeau.

A shape-shifting tableau of our haywired world, Lipsynch recycles just about every form of stage expression, from soul-wrenching drama to slapstick, opera and beyond, picking up and discarding various styles like so many found objets d’art.

Once again it is a machine that serves as the spectacle’s somewhat detached soul, a toy-like thicket of silver tentacles that twist and turn to give the illusion of a subway car, a train compartment, an airplane cabin, a restaurant or any other location.

A dozen fatigues-clad stagehands schlep the apparatus into shape for the next scene, with the chaotic speed and precision of a Grand Prix crew. It’s all part of his post-modern show, and Lepage winks at the audience by incorporating the between-scenes action into his octopus-like plot in the second of three acts when the point of view shifts to Jeremy, a filmmaker played by Rick Miller, and the scene is a movie set. The grips are allowed to speak only briefly, because Lepage’s greatest talent may be that he never loses his sense of directorial proportion. No scene goes on too long and the dazzling, signature effects, no matter how pleasing to the crowd, are jettisoned well before they get a chance to grow tiresome.

Structured like a musical piece, Lipsynch consists of seven loosely related parts, seven voices, each one with its own narrative timbre.

The superb acting rates major credit here and could be the production’s most rewarding element. And the director generates an extra dynamic with intercultural casting that includes German soprano Rebecca Blankenship as Jeremy’s adoptive parent and Nuria Garcia as his biological mother.

Nowadays, the theatre is too often just a fusty, “forgotten but not gone” bastion of classicism. Lepage has retrofitted the stage to make it attractive to the television and microchip generations.

After Lipsynch, it’s difficult to think of another living theatre practitioner who has focused so much public attention on what has become in the last half century a marginalized, if still influential art.

The Quebec City director, apparently at the height of his creative powers, remains that rarest of show-biz phenoms, a great and uncompromising artist with global reach.