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.|
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.|