Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Robert Lepage and Peter Brook

I've been attending theater nonstop recently - five shows in the last four days.  Three of them were shows I was scouting for the Festival of Jewish Theater and Ideas, in one way or another.  And two of them were directed by two masters of the avant garde: Peter Brook and Robert Lepage.

Peter Brook is known, of course, for his book The Empty Space, which I read in college.  It is a great book with deep insights.  Or so it seems when reading it.  Unfortunately I have now seen two of Brook's plays:  The Man Who..., and this most recent production (at the New York Theater Workshop), The Grand Inquisitor, and to say I have been underwhelmed is to exaggerate my enthusiasm.  They are both indeed done in an empty space, with minimal set, minimal lights, minimal costumes, and, sadly, minimal drama.

Both times they commit the worse crime a production can commit.  They were tedious.  I was particularly sad about The Man Who..., as I love the source material (Oliver Sacks' The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat) That suffered from Brook's desire to use a multinational cast who, unfortunately, didn't all have a good grasp of English.  In a play exploring neurology, especially neurological conditions that affect language, that's a major problem.

The Grand Inquisitor features Bruce Myers, whose command of English was impeccable.  But a one man recitation without theatrical affect demands work so riveting that it needs nothing else.  It wasn't.  And a production so spare demands that each gesture mean the world.  But the gestures were just motions.

Now, I have been told by those who have seen his Midsummer Night's Dream or King Lear (both before my time) that Brook is capable of greatness.  Perhaps he is.  Robert Lepage certainly is.  I have seen him direct The Far Side of the Moon, one of my favorite productions ever.  I even found his less acclaimed Elsinore amazing.

Unfortunately, this time he was directing The Damnation of Faust by Hector Belioz at the Metropolitan Opera.  It was an opera that was never really meant to be staged.  It was only staged in full once during Belioz's life.

Lepage has a whole new set of video toys at his disposal, now.  The Times did a whole feature on them, and they are impressive, as far as technology goes.  As far as theater goes, however, they have yet to prove themselves.

In fact, it seemed to me as if Lepage's toys got in the way of his inventiveness.  The most powerful moments I've seen Lepage direct are often the simplest.  I think often of the moment in The Far Side of the Moon where he invoked the full feeling of being in outer space just by sort of wiggling on the floor.  It sounds almost ridiculous, but in context it was amazing.  And though Elsinore seemed at times to be a series of magic tricks, they were incredible magic tricks that made you wonder how he could have possibly accomplished them.

The tech for this opera is amazing to tech geeks, I'm sure, but to to an average audience member it just looks like projection, and theatrically static projections at that.  Perhaps with a more dramatic opera Lepage will have more success.  Lepage is planning to use some of his new tricks with his Ring cycle, coming up at the Met, and I hope, I truly hope, that it will all pay off there.

Because each time I've walked in the theater over the last four days I've walked in hoping to be amazed.  To be transported.  To be reminded what I truly love about theater.  It hasn't happened recently.  To tell the truth, it rarely happens.

But Lepage is capable of it.  Perhaps Brook is as well.

Maybe next time.

No comments: