Friday, March 30, 2012

Tales from Andersen, Part 1

The opera house as staging ground for the mind - Yves Jacques in The Andersen Project

You don't usually think of Hans Christian Andersen as a pre-eminent poet of modernity; but in the visionary The Andersen Project (at ArtsEmerson through this weekend only) the celebrated writer/director Robert LePage convinces you that Andersen was precisely that.

At the same time, LePage convinces you that he himself is among the most sophisticated creators of theatre alive.  For The Andersen Project only re-affirms what The Far Side of the Moon suggested some years ago: LePage stands apart (if not alone!) in his stunning ability to synthesize from the implements of technology theatrical forms which can hold their own against traditional standards.

I think this is important to emphasize.  If you've been scared away from LePage by the likes of Robert Wilson, or the many "performance artists" who have basically wandered into the theatre from the more pretentious realms of music and the visual arts - don't be.  Don't be.  LePage is a man of the theatre; he understands, even loves, its conventions. Plus he's literate, and understands literature - moreover, he understands that theatre is one form of literature that must live and breathe in real time.  He never tries to intimidate you into suffering through some boring form of stilted surrealism or flat conceptualism; he's a dramatic thinker, not a visual thinker who's pretending the stage can conform to the aesthetics of the canvas; so with LePage, you're never stuck staring at Admiral Perry floating in snow while Philip Glass drones away on the soundtrack for what feels like hours.

No, Robert LePage makes plays.  Real plays.  Plays that in their thematic sophistication and density can stand up to Churchill and Barker; which is to say they are richer and more challenging than anything being written by the younger generation of playwrights working today.  The difference is that LePage's "texts" (and yes, they are texts) are largely visual.

Which creates intriguing challenges for his critics.  Take a typical LePage scenario - I'll choose one from The Andersen Project: the script's hero, Frédéric (the amazing Yves Jacques), is traveling from Copenhagen to Paris on a bullet train (see opening of video below); he seems to be floating before us, onstage and yet "on screen,"as a filmed image of passing scenery surrounds him, hurtling away from us to a vanishing point.  This technical trick is in itself quite resonant, pressing on us Frédéric's civilized alienation, his essential solitude, his lack of precise location - even as his cell phone signal falters and fails.  Bored, he samples a drug he left absent-mindedly in his pocket - is it ecstasy?  The train goes faster and faster; his visual cortex begins to fire in different colors; the druggy haze of modernity deepens.  He had talked of stopping at a club in Hamburg, and suddenly the bullet train morphs INTO the club - but is he actually there, or only dreaming of being there?  It doesn't matter; he dances crazily to what was once the thunder of the train, but is now the thunder of the beat.  And behind him, a laser display mimics precisely the hurtling scenery, spraying out then tunneling backward to a single vanishing point.  Two solitary "ecstasies" of modern life merge into one even as we watch.

The drug of modernity takes over.

You absorb all this just as you would the subtext of dialogue (and at something like the same pace); by this point, you've already picked up LePage's ideas and themes, even though his characters never discuss them explicitly - and so you're primed to fit visual references into the expanding structure of his overall statement just as you might similarly track muttered asides in Chekhov or Shakespeare; this is like watching your average, pretentiously stumbling performance artist suddenly sprint ahead into something like visual iambic pentameter.  And if you think I'm over-reaching by mentioning the names I just referenced - well, perhaps I am, but not by all that much.  I'm still chewing on The Andersen Project (after seeing it twice), and I think I've yet to fully limn the amazing lattice of connections and resonances that LePage has designed.

In fact I confess I'm a little daunted by the task of parsing this show; I've glanced at local reviews by the likes of Bill Marx and Don Aucoin, but neither managed to put over the full complexity of LePage's achievement, with its double set of twins, and their related mirrors and doppelgängers, as well as the multiple narratives snaking around them, and in and out of each other - even as cinema and theatre (aesthetic doppelgängers right there) duke it out in formal terms before our startled eyes.   And I'm sure you're wondering by now - what has all this got to do with Danny Kaye?  Sigh.  This is what makes me feel a little sorry for artists today - even when they do achieve greatness, there's hardly any one left to pay the proper kind of attention.  But attention must be paid, as someone once said.  So I promise to return tomorrow with a fuller accounting of LePage's "Tales from Andersen."


  1. I can't believe that Tom Garvey is possibly at a loss for words about a performance. I cannot wait to see this tonight!

  2. I'm hoping it's a temporary condition.

  3. The thing is, I do try to get things right, and oddly, I often feel that I'm the only one out here trying to do that, to complete the ancient cycle of art and criticism - i.e., the cultural statement, and then its analysis. I'm not sure why people have decided that "the analysis" part is illegitimate now, that we can somehow do without it (we can't, not if we hope to survive as a culture); I know that's what all the college professors say, but people don't pay any attention to college professors about most things, so why this one thing, about which they're most in error? It is a puzzlement. I get the impression sometimes that people imagine I just whip off a review with whatever comes to mind - hardly! My critical process has at least two major steps - the first is the sudden sense of recognition that I am, indeed, before a work of art. This is - well, not rare, but not usual, either, and the process of recognition is essentially un-, or sub-conscious; I know something is art well before I know WHY it's art. At first all I have is a pleasurable, very exciting sensation, a sense of awakening, that beneath the surface of a piece, themes are stirring and coalescing; it's like mental sex. The "criticism" part involves figuring out what, exactly, my subconscious recognized, and then teasing apart its meaning. Like any form of concentration, this takes time and energy - in fact it can be exhausting. And of course you're doing it for no pay, and half the world thinks you're crazy to do it all - why consider when you can just consume? - and of course if your decisions don't go their way, then you're a racist or sexist, or what have you. It's wearying. Still, I always tell myself, if I don't do it, who will? And gradually, of course, I do see my ideas shape what's left of the discourse - but only after the various financial and institutional interests involved have faded, or have given up the fight in the face of overwhelming evidence. Perhaps that process would still occur without me, but it only be that much longer. That is if the whole scene didn't slow into utter and complete stasis.