American Theatre

September 2002, Don Shewey

Set your watch to now. Lepage's ZULU TIME catalogs the A-B-C's of global travel.

A few years ago I was flying back to New York from Amsterdam on Pakistan International Airlines. Somewhere over the Atlantic, the middle-aged woman sitting next to me, who was dressed in a sari and spoke excellent English, woke up from a nap and urgently asked me, “What time is it?” All I could think was, “What time is it where? New York? Amsterdam? Lahore? The Azores?

The disorienting nature of air travel, how it merges all time and all space, and how that serves as a metaphor for the contemporary experience of our high-tech, plugged-in world - these form the essential material of Zulu Time, the “techno-cabaret” created by Canadian theatre mastermind Robert Lepage in collaboration with the legendary rock performer Peter Gabriel and a team of international artists and technicians.

Originally developed at Lepage’s hometown laboratory, La Caserne Dalhousie in Quebec City, Zulu Time had its preliminary manifestation in 1999 at the Theatre Spektakel in Zurich and the Festival D’Automne in Paris. It was supposed to have had its American premiere last September at the Roseland Ballroom in New York as part of a two-month-long festival called Quebec New York 2001. On the morning of Sept. 11, I found myself shakily going through the motions of editing a feature story I’d written about Lepage and Gabriel for the New York Times Arts and Leisure section, with horrifying TV news broadcasts running in the background. By the time the article came out the following Sunday, the show, the festival and many cherished ideas about the world we live in had been cancelled.

Zulu Time finally resurfaced last June at the Montreal Jazz Festival. Quite unlike any of Lepage’s previous work, it was staged on an elaborate scaffold structure with the audience on either side of the main auditorium in Usine C, the former warehouse that is base for Montreal’s adventurous dance-theatre company Carbone 14. The piece was subtitled ” a cabaret for airports,” and indeed some of the audience sat at cabaret tables sipping beverages. Many of the narrative scenes took place in the liminal space of air travelers - hotel rooms, airplane cabins, airport food courts and those endless, endless walkways betweens terminals.

Mainly, though, the subtitle conjured the European concept of “cabaret” - more sophisticated than vaudeville, it’s an equally elastic form that can include a wide variety of artistic expressions that may or may not have any narrative link. Lepage and his collaborators swept in dance, drama, songs, standup comedy, film and advanced video technology, adopting an alphabetical structure based on the international radio transmission code that aviators use : A for Alpha, B for Bravo, C for Charlie, all the way up to Z for Zulu. As Lepage told me, “Zulu Time is the military’s universal clock. When they bombed Belgrade, bombers leaving San Diego were synchronized with bombers from Italy, and they were all on Zulu Time.”

For me, and I gather for the company, it was difficult not to view the Montreal performances in the context of Sept. 11. Aside from the fact that the world was in an uproar at the time, the New York shows were scotched, I’d heard, partly because one thread of Zulu Time involved terrorism against airplanes. Watching it in Montreal, I was curious to see how that would play itself out. About midway through came a section titled “Kilo,” a long, beautifully staged, wordless scene. It began with two actions transpiring in hotel rooms simultaneously. On one side of the stage, a blonde woman listening to the radio slowly and methodically strapped package after package of white powder to her waist so that she looked slightly pregnant, and then slipped on a dark-blue burqua. On the other side of the stage, an Arab man with a beard and a turban spread out a small rug and said his prayers, then changed into what looked like an airline pilot’s uniform, and finally took out a metal briefcase and connected the wiring to a bomb inside. In a seamless dissolve, the stage area became the interior of an interior of an airplane preparing for takeoff with flight attendants and a number of passengers, including the two we’d just seen in their hotel rooms. Shortly after takeoff, the uniformed man retrieved his briefcase from the overhead compartment, opened it, and kaboom!

What happened next was almost more shocking and disturbing than the explosion. The alphabet rolled on to the next letter, a scene titled “Lima,” which seemed to be a glimpse of a Peruvian rave, complete with pounding techno-music and lithe young dancers spinning glow-sticks. No comment on the previous scene, no piety, no apology. What a powerful, blunt way of saying, “After 9/11, life goes on!”

For me, the moment crystallized my perception of Zulu Time as a whole. Its 26 strange little experiments in time, perspective and technology add up to a savvy, multidimensional snapshot of the world as we’re living it right now. The tone veers wildly from silly to somber to satirical. Again and again the piece reflects the multiple languages (spoken, silent, visual) through which we struggle to understand our complicated world. A lounge singer tells jokes in German, and then Spanish, that none of the French - and English - speaking spectators can understand, so of course bomb. A pregnant woman gets a sonogram - we watch it on the screen - while a cellist plays a wistful air. Scenes in which the performers toss off old-timey swing tunes ricochet off sequences of super-high-tech video created by the Swiss team Granular Synthesis. And with no text other than occasional casual dialogue, the piece conveys the restlessness and longing that go with contemporary travel in tableaux as timely as a hip-hop remix and timeless as a Hopper painting. The lounge singer morphs into a Zulu warrior wearing the same makeup and carrying the same spear and shied we’ve seen in a corny colonialist in-flight movie - an image that contains both the comforting cliché that “we’re all connected” and a critique of that cliché, suggesting that we also carry around partially digested, media-distorted understandings of one another’s cultures.

The territory that Zulu Time surveys is a broad as that Lepage’s major works (The Seven Streams of the River Ota, The Dragon’s Trilogy) and as impressive in its ability to convey large themes in human scale. But sitting in the audience, I felt a new kind aliveness, a feeling that perhaps only the Wooster Group inspires in me: It was the feeling of watching a piece of theatre that engaged me by capitalizing not only on my history of viewing other plays but also on the music I downloaded from the Internet yesterday, the cell phone I programmed, the defective DVD player I returned, the plane ticket I booked online and the website on which I viewed my sister’s digital images of zebras and giraffes she saw on safari in Kenya. I could see the effort by Lepage and company to suspend conventional narratives, to condense impressions, to translate across technologies and media, and to render a 21st-century experience with the mix of theatrical tools uniquely available this very minute.