If you examine the list below this review, you will see that it goes on almost like credits for a film. There are three actors on stage; but, as Robert Lepage indicated during the standing ovation curtain call at the end of the performance, there were many people performing last evening.
The Blue Dragon is a thoroughly conceived piece that involves Chinese calligraphy, lighting, sound and video effects, subtitles, dance, mythology, drama, often eye-tricking staging, quick changes, a trick ending, and no intermission. The lack of an intermission is a pet peeve of mine, but not in this case: we sat for almost two hours of uninterrupted performance, entranced.
The story involves Claire, an alcoholic Quebecoise who arrives in China ostensibly to adopt a little girl. She stops briefly at the home of Pierre, a Quebecois ex-pat who after a decade and a half speaks Chinese fluently and has been absorbed into a life of bicycles, tea and calligraphy. Claire and Pierre once were married, but, as Facebook categorizes, their relationship is “complicated”. Both are art dealers. He represents a promising young Chinese artist, Xiao Ling, who is also his lover.
The script observes Aristotle’s prescription of the unities in a most intriguing and complex manner: it starts with a little lecture by Pierre on Chinese calligraphy, particularly the symbol for river, which has three vertical strokes in it. Thus, there are three characters, three options at the crisis, and three endings.
Over (or perhaps under) all this is the blue dragon, who, the program informs us, is the fourth dragon. To step back a little: The Blue Dragon is a sequel to a play Lepage presented twenty years ago: The Dragons’ Trilogy, about Pierre and Claire and his decision to travel to China. I have not seen that play, but I see from the notes that each of four dragons represents a different force. One must understand that Oriental dragons are very different from European dragons; while the latter are fierce monsters that hoard gold and visit destruction on humans, oriental dragons are more complex characters, often with a sense of humour. The blue dragon, we are told, lies under ice and snow, symbolizing death and rebirth. The dragon is represented in the technical plot by thunder and lightning. I was pleased to note that unlike most sound and light plots, this one featured lightning flashes and thunder that were realistically not simultaneous. Thank you. That said, the weather thus becomes a forceful symbol in the production, and is represented almost cinematically as the aforementioned lightning and thunder as well as rain and snow. The rain and snow are effectively depicted by light effects. At times, snow takes on a haunting almost symbolic similarity to stars.
Another technical effect was set movement, which was used mainly for scene changes, some startlingly rapid and ingenious, others artistic and ingenious, shifting us rapidly between Pierre’s apartment and the train station or the airport or a bar, or from an interior to an exterior, or from one time to another. Some sets were panoramas, like the train progressing across the landscape in the distance, or the maps setting the Yangtze boat locales. The bicycle scenes were vivid illusions. In some, the bikes were moving backwards to create the effect of travel greater than the proscenium width. Needless to say by now that the technical effects were clever and effective and embracingly entertaining.
An unfair speculation: I wonder if it would be possible or even interesting to produce this dialogue without these effects. The dialogue is often witty and entertaining on its own, yet the effects are significant in contexting the dialogue. Case in point: the scene in which Claire finds Xiao Ling at work in the art factory. The paintings are projected effects, the emotional scene ending is enhanced by the crescendo of the music. Similarly, the lecture at the opening of the play would not work without the projection of the characters; by the same token, when Claire talks about the bar scene, the reference to the rotating table is enhanced by our strange memory of the bottles and glasses slowly passing in opposite directions on the long bar. The effects are integral to the production, beyond doubt.
The dance scenes featured Tai Wei Foo performing her own choreography. They were very effective at setting a cultural tone, and the two that used a follow-light background were incredibly stimulating, mainly because the effect is so unusual in a live setting. They were more like digressions than an integral part of the plot; in fact, they did not work as part of her character’s biography, as she was a painter, not a dancer. One particularly striking use of her art was the scene after which Claire leaves her: she cooly turns her camera phone on herself and takes her picture to capture her image as she is in that tragic instant, for a future portrait.
There is so much to comment on in this play. We come to know Pierre’s foibles—certainly his appetite for sex, which reveals his superficiality; we see Claire’s desperation in her relationship to alcohol; we come to see Xiao Ling’s hard edge in her decisions. The set colours are superb, set design is exceptionally functional in multiple ways, sound and lighting deserve another superlative. It certainly deserved the enthusiastic and prolonged standing ovation.
Production seen: April 4, 2009 7:30 pm running time, approx 1 hour, 50 min. No intermission.
The Blue Dragon
Written by Marie Michaud and Robert Lepage
Directed by Robert Lepage
Assistant to the director: Félix Dagenais
English translation….. Michael Mackenzie
Set designer….. Michel Gauthier
Properties designer….. Jeanne Lapierre
Sound designer….. Jean-Sébastien Côté
Lighting designer….. Louis-Xavier Gagnon-Lebrun
Costume designer….. François St-Aubin
Assisted by….. Jessica Poirier-Chang
Projection designer….. David Leclerc
Choreographer….. Tai Wei Foo
Director’s agent….. Lynda Beaulieu
Production manager….. Julie Marie Bourgeois
Technical director….. Pierre Gagné
Tour manager….. Danielle Fiset
Stage manager….. Christian Garon
Sound manager….. Donato Wharton
Video manager….. Alexis Rivest
Lighting managers….. Louis-Xavier Gagnon-Lebrun, Félix Bernier Guimond
Wardrobe and prop manager….. Jeanne Lapierre
Chief stagehand….. Chloé Blanchet
Stagehand….. Yannick Dufour
Technical consultants….. Tobie Horswill, Catherine Guay
Wigs….. Richard Hansen
Set building….. Astuce Décors inc.
Les Conceptions visuelles Jean-Marc Cyr inc.
Conception Alain Gagné inc.
Chinese calligraphy….. Truong Chanh Trung
The Blue Dragon
Copresented by the NAC English Theatre and Le Théâtre français du CNA
Produced by Ex Machina (Quebec City)
In coproduction with
La Comète (scène Nationale de Châlons-en-Champagne, France)
La Filature, Scène Nationale de Mulhouse (France)
MC2 : Maison de la Culture de Grenoble (France)
Le Théâtre du Nouveau Monde, Montreal
Festival Internacional de las Artes de Castilla y León, Salamanca 2008 (Spain)
Le Théâtre du Trident, Quebec City
Simon Fraser University, Vancouver
UCLA Live (Los Angeles, CA)
Canada’s National Arts Centre, Ottawa
Cal Performances, University of California, Berkeley
barbican bite 10, London
Associate producer, Europe, Japan….. Richard Castelli
Associate producer, United Kingdom….. Michael Morris
Associate producer, The Americas, Asia (except Japan), Australia, NZ….. Menno Plukker
Producer for Ex Machina….. Michel Bernatchez
Ex Machina is funded by the Canada Council for the Arts, Quebec’s Arts and Literature Council, and the City of Quebec.