Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Tales from Andersen, Part 2

Confronting Andersen's lost Dryad - actually, Auguste Clésinger's "Woman Bitten by a Snake"

Where to begin with Robert LePage's The Andersen Project (which closed Sunday at ArtsEmerson)?  I've already confessed I'm a little in awe of this piece; I haven't felt this way about a new work since I saw Tony Kushner's The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide, etc. - which, come to think of it, I never got around to decoding, either, partly because of its daunting level of achievement, the sheer density of its intellectual reference.  In comparison, Andersen seems lighter on its feet, and because much of its text is composed of imagery, it's somehow easy (at first) to imagine that it's a  kind beautiful, easily understood, postmodern picture book.  It's about this guy trying to write a children's opera about Hans Christian Andersen for the Paris Opera, right?  Right.

If you ponder the piece for long, however - and begin to sense that every stage picture seems to open out into something that has come before, or will come after - then the narrative "floor" of the text seems to drop out from under you, and you realize you're grappling with what amounts to the imagistic equivalent of hypertext.   Indeed, if I had to pin down the theme of The Andersen Project at this point, I think the best I could do is something like "the isolation of the imagination in modernity."

Which of course makes the piece sound ridiculously pompous and dull, which it isn't at all - instead it's a bewitching mix of whimsy and melancholy.  Its melancholic atmosphere largely derives from the sense of lonely self-fulfillment that pervades the piece - it's about a librettist, Frédéric, writing an opera for a single voice (remember that), and his seeming twin, Arnaud, the ambitious arts administrator guiding the project through the political shoals of E.U. high culture.  Both - along with every other character in the script - are played by a single actor, the brilliant Yves Jacques (remember that), and thus, though in theory LePage's characters often meet and interact over the course of the narrative, in practical terms they never do - and hence questions of actual conflict are essentially moot.

So everyone in The Andersen Project is alone, but in a crowd - of machines, that is.  LePage sends his heroes wandering among rows of peep-show booths, rows of telephone booths, rows of computer booths - there's instrumentation available for everything, from communication to masturbation.  Everywhere the implements of fulfillment for each and every desire are calmly, silently waiting to be activated.

Hans Christian Andersen, of course, lived when this technical dream was only just dawning - or as Arnaud glibly puts it, on the cusp of the "romantic and the mechanistic;" indeed, Andersen visited Paris during the Exposition Universelle of 1867, one of the first of the great technological fairs to dazzle the world with visions of utopian advance (Verne wrote 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea after visiting it).  And LePage is quick to seize on the resonance of this moment, and incorporate it into his Project; his Andersen (again Yves Jacques) haunts the same neighborhoods his modern heroes do, over a century later.  Indeed, in a way he prefigures them; for Andersen was famous for fairy tales in which mermaids and match girls dreamt of transformation and deliverance; and he stood on the brink of a technical revolution which promised exactly the same thing.

Between the romantic and the mechanistic.
Thus the resonance of "The Dryad," the Andersen fairy tale which Frédéric is bent on transforming into a children's opera.  It's a typical Andersen story in many ways; a powerless female presence - here a dryad (that's a tree-nymph) imprisoned in a country chestnut - dreams of escaping her prison and achieving transfiguration by wandering the streets of Paris, whose lights she can just make out on the horizon of her meadow.  And as in much of Andersen, the dryad prays so intensely for her deliverance that it is granted- but at a terrible price: once freed, she will live only for an evening.

Which is when we recall that happy endings aren't always the norm in Andersen; the Little Match Girl, the Little Mermaid, and the Steadfast Tin Soldier all come to grief; and the little girl who dons the famous Red Shoes only frees herself of them by hacking off her ankles, while the little fir who dreams of being a Christmas tree ends up chopped into kindling and burnt alive.  Again and again, in the magical realms of Andersen, the will to personal enrichment and enhancement - the core promises of modernity - lead only to punishment and repentance.

But it's only gradually, as we watch The Andersen Project, that we realize similar disappointments are in store for its characters, too.  Frédéric is in Paris basically because he has been dazzled by it (just as the dryad was), and hopes its glory will validate him - only his opera will fail to materialize, and the romance he hopes to rekindle back at home will instead die out for good in his absence.  Meanwhile the life of his double, Arnaud, all but collapses as his wife leaves him for his best friend, and he sinks into a round of obsessive wanking in the city's peep shows (his trajectory is mirrored by a second fairy tale, Andersen's eerie tale of foreboding, "The Shadow").  Indeed, Andersen himself has a modern doppelgänger in the Moroccan immigrant Rashid, a street artist who mops down the booths that Arnaud frequents (that is when he isn't spray-painting Paris with his graffiti).

The parallels and mirrors hardly stop there; we're told that Andersen dotted his writings with little crucifixes, in much the same way that Rashid tags the blank page of Paris; only it's theorized that what Andersen may have been recording was actually his daily wanks (rather like Arnaud's self-administrations, which Rashid is paid to erase?) - or are Andersen's stories themselves a form of auto-erotica - like Rashid's graffiti?  We also recall that Andersen may have died a virgin - he was never able to consummate the sexual act (rather like Frédéric? rather like Arnaud?); indeed, it's probably worth noting that in the romantic scenes LePage conjures for Andersen (above left), women are depicted by mannikins - that is, by machines . . .

You may sense at this point the referential density of LePage's design, but believe me, there's more where this came from; indeed, I'm not sure there's a single line or image in The Andersen Project that doesn't refer to or echo something (or someone) else embedded elsewhere in the text.   As I said, of contemporary playwrights, I think only Kushner may be this densely self-referential (or this ambitious) - only LePage is far more unified than Kushner; indeed, as we watch The Andersen Project, we begin to sense LePage's various gambits coalescing into a single meditation on what you might call the 'problem' of the modern imagination.  Like Andersen's characters, we now enjoy new technological powers that reach far beyond the merely mortal; but again like them, once transfigured, we find ourselves abandoned to our dreams - and demons.

And there is, of course, another dimension to LePage's work which deserves mention here: the way in which he conjures a kind of "cinema" onstage - a technique which proves far more resonant in The Andersen Project than in any of the other pieces by this director I've so far encountered.

It makes sense, of course,  if you're going to make your "text" out of imagery, that you work in film or video rather than the theatre; yet film and video famously lack the sense of live presence that theatre bears in its bones.  Indeed, film directors must work overtime (with soundtracks, lighting, camera tricks, etc.) to simulate a sophisticated kind of dream-state for the cinematic audience to participate in, to sink into - indeed, without this subtle hypnosis, this complete identification, it's difficult for a viewer to even access the thematic content of a film.  (This is why straightforward films of stage productions never convey the excitement of the theatrical event; the content hasn't been massaged yet into a kind of directed dream.)

LePage wants things both ways, however; he wants to tell his story through imagery, and yet with the immediacy of live theatre.  And in The Andersen Project, I'd argue he largely succeeds in this contradictory aim; indeed, the sense that we are moving in and out of a "screen" - which itself edges towards us now and then throughout the show - is central to the cumulative effect of the work.  The screen in question is slightly curved, so that Yves Jacques can step directly "into" it at will (below); the effect is mysteriously cinematic and theatrical simultaneously; we sense the power of the dream, even as we remain apart from it.  The technique has a further thematic resonance - for in a way LePage's characters (like his audience) are now living their lives in separate, fantasized narratives, like so many interlocking movies (or booths).  Indeed, the director pushes things perhaps even a step farther at his finale, in which Frédéric appears both before us and on screen, like a giant ghost floating within the Palais Garnier, to tell us, it seems, of his own death by fire the night before.  But has he actually perished (like the dryad)?  Or has only his dream of himself finally died?  As the flames reach the ceiling of the opera, we realize we will have to decide this one for ourselves; neither the stage nor the screen can tell us.

Alone in the culture of Culture.


  1. I got this nice email from a reader that I thought I'd share:

    Wonderfully enjoyed reading your insights on Lepage’s work in “The Andersen Project” – a marvelous piece of theater! You’re absolutely right – there are so many ideas/themes/visuals in the production that one can easily contemplate it for days after seeing it. Riffing on what I read in your “Tales from Andersen, Part 2”, how about “never able to consummate the sexual act” with regard to the vasectomy, too? And then there’s the ‘dry’ vs. ‘wet’ themes: spray paint vs. written book/libretto, or creative art vs. the rejected art; spray paint vs. sprayed cum. And the life vs. death ideas, i.e., in “The Shadow” the execution of the actual man by his shadow. And on, and on… thanks for the two insightful reviews.

    I agreed with this reader on the points he raised - these are indeed all additional resonances in the text. But even these, I think, represent only the tip of this particular thematic iceberg!

  2. It's interesting. The two pieces you have liked the best in Boston this season involve plays being told within plays. The danger with such pieces is that they can seduce you into thinking they're brilliant because of all the resonances you find between the inner and outer tales. But while I enjoyed the Andersen Tale and The Speaker's Progress, I didn't think the resonances added up to much. By the end, both became incoherent.

    In a way, there are too many points of intersection between the Andersen Tale and the Dryad. Not enough pruning was done during the production process. The artist and the audience both wind up lost. I took it as a sign of thematic confusion that the opera manager has to come out at the end of the play and tell us straight-out what the meaning of the Dryad is. Evidently, LePage was worried we wouldn't get it otherwise.

    But the one thing I really think you leave out in your review is how slight the stories are in the Andersen Tale. They are somewhere between character sketches and slice-of-life vignettes. They never obtain any real dramatic heft. And no amount of magical, LePage-ian stagecraft can compensate.

    I liked the dog. I thought it was amazing and funny that LePage had figured out how to simulate the animal prancing around on the end of his leash. But the importance of the dog in the play is Frederic's growing fondness for it, which sets the stage for his change of heart about having a baby. Instead, all we see is Frederic clumsily trying to carry on a phone call while walking the dog. It's generic, not character specific. An opportunity gets lost. LePage wants us to marvel at his stage trick, but we don't get any real insight into Frederic's feelings toward the animal, which in turn makes it hard to understand why he didn't want a child. Was it something about his girlfriend? A bleak world view? A desire to live an itinerant life? We never know.

  3. Well, thanks for your comment, and of course to each his own, but . . . you think there's "too much" richness and density in The Andersen Project and that this has 'seduced" me into imagining it's brilliant, when it really isn't? Let's just say that's a tricky point to argue - indeed the only way to argue it is to claim (as you openly do) that the Hans Christian Andersen source material is superficial. Again, to each his own - but global success and endurance is generally viewed as evidence of at least some depth, and many of the greatest classics of literature are based, at bottom, on simple fairy and folk tales. And I'm sorry, but you just can't kid me when I feel a frisson move through an audience the way it did during LePage's brilliantly spare rendition of "The Shadow." That's what it's all about, Lawrence.

    And I have to disagree with your contention that both this and The Speaker's Progress became "incoherent." I can half-understand that cavil about The Speaker's Progress, but still feel you're mistaken, as that piece declared itself as speculative, and indeed, ended with the open question, "What next?" As for The Andersen Project, I have to disagree entirely; it's almost scarily coherent, far more coherent, I think, than almost any text-based show I've seen this season.

    I, too, liked the dog. As I said, there were all kind of brilliant things in this show that I couldn't get around to mentioning. But I hate to point out - the dog was an intense cluster of signifiers and references, too - everything from it peeing on the trees that Frederic, then Andersen, then Rashid all marked to its eventual fecundity (and survival of the fire) all carried deep thematic import.

    As for why Frederic didn't want a child - he does tell us explicitly: he feels cut off from humanity in some way by the traumas he suffered at the hands of other children for being an albino. I for one actually don't find that hard to understand - in fact, I find it piercing, and very much in the mood and modes of Andersen.