Robert Lepage’s The Blue Dragon is a potent spectacle

January 14, 2012, Robert Cushman, National Post

Robert Lepage’s The Blue Dragon is a quiet knockout: seductively gentle even when making noise and flashing lights. It’s been publicized as a mixed-media show, which in the most literal sense is accurate. The production employs a lot of projections, and a certain amount of film footage. Its stage, or parts of it, moves gracefully up and down or from side to side, music and dance are gainfully employed, and the lighting and sound effects are so exquisitely timed and calibrated as to constitute new media in themselves. None of the hi-tech, though, seems overbearing or there for its own sake. As in all Lepage’s best work it’s at the service of story and character. It may seem counterintuitive to say so but his is an actor’s theatre.

The narrative here is not, perhaps, the strongest in the world, though I suspect I would find it more substantial if I had seen Lepage’s Dragon Trilogy to which it forms a sequel or pendent. That work ended with its protagonist, Pierre Lamontagne, departing Canada for China, which is where we find him, 20 years on, running an arts centre in Shanghai. He’s visited by Claire Foret, a highly successful and heavy-drinking advertising executive, with whom he shares a romantic past. Facing professional obsolescence (she says her younger male colleagues look at her “as if I were a black-and-white TV”), Claire has come to China desperate to adopt a baby. Both she and Pierre trained as artists, though Pierre now devotes himself to exhibiting others’ work. His current protégé, also his current lover, is a gifted young woman named Xiao Ling, who becomes unwillingly pregnant. Combine her circumstances with Claire’s and you might seem to have an excellent case for surrogate motherhood. People, however, are not that predictable.

The text, by Lepage and Marie Michaud, switches between English, French and Chinese, the last two being surtitled; it’s laconic but capable of being powerful or funny or both. Michaud plays Claire, a generally tight-lipped performance that periodically explodes into bitter self-mockery. Henri Chasse’s Pierre is gentle and relaxed, maybe too much of both for the man’s own gnawing sense of failure and growing sense of responsibility. He’s at his best when talking directly to us, on the subject of Chinese calligraphy, whose lines and symbols inform much of the show’s own suggestive visual style. He tells us that he used to haunt tattoo parlours as other Westerners might bars or brothels, and it’s in one of them that he first met Xiao Ling — she inscribed on him the blue dragon of the title, which is illustrated but never explicitly mentioned. Tattoos, we also learn, used to be forbidden in China except as a form of punishment; now they’re a business. So Xiao Ling herself is an emblem, and a conflicted one, of the country’s transformation. This seems to be the burden of the dances that she performs, one at each end of the show; they’re semi-traditional, graceful but angry. Tai Wei Foo, who plays her and is also the choreographer, is a dancer making her acting debut; and hers is the best performance of the three, especially impressive in eruptions of feeling that seem to come out of nowhere but are, on examination, securely grounded. Hers is the most dynamic part of an action that might, at the risk of conflating Asian cultures, be subtitled The Revenge of Madam Butterfly.

Xiao Ling’s own art is based in self-portraiture; it’s one of the most haunting ironies in a script and staging suffused with verbal and visual echoes that she finds herself at one point working at a “copyist fair” where the favoured subject is Van Gogh’s most familiar picture of himself. The stage steadily fills with projections of this image, in the evening’s most magical and most mordant effect.

It has plenty of competition. Lepage continues his fascination with transport. We get an opening scene on a plane, Claire returning to her seat with drink in hand; an illuminated miniature train snaking its way across the back of the stage; a mobile bar, with drinks daintily displayed, that seems to be chasing its own tail; and numerous trips on bicycles, in vignettes ranging from lyrical to satirical. Claire and Xiao Ling, on their way to see the pandas in the zoo, wear masks; Pierre, in similar situations, seems less concerned by the air quality in Shanghai but does worry about the drinking water. His own apartment and gallery are threatened with demolition by developers; meanwhile international negotiations over threatened cuddly species are described as “pandaplomacy.” None of this adds up to a profound examination of the new Chinese capitalism, or to its relationship with Canada, but it does set off some suggestive signals.

Some of the most potent effects are the simplest: a still-clothed couple in silhouette, about to make love; the offstage shrieking of a kettle. Michel Gauthier’s set starts as a plain split-level affair; towards the end of the play it magically compartmentalizes, for short and silent scenes that might be dreams or flashbacks. The final sequence, set with impeccable logic in an airport, is surpassingly witty; it has you looking wryly back on all that has gone before and discovering that — to misquote a favourite song-lyric — everything is possible and everything makes sense.