September 10, 2008

A Marathon That Runs Out of Steam Stage

By Matt Wolf

How long in the theater is too long? That's one of those fascinating imponderables, the answer to which is continually being revised. We've all seen shows where an hour can fly by in what feels like several minutes, or, conversely, where the briefest of events finds us checking our watches more or less from the outset. With most productions, the actual running time isn't the story: you expect theater pieces to clock in between 90 minutes and three hours. Occasionally, a so-called Beckett "dramaticule" finds you back on the street after a seeming nanosecond, while Broadway's current "August: Osage County" thrillingly stretches the all-but- vanished three-act play to nearly three-and-a-half hours. Londoners will see for themselves when "August" reaches the National Theatre in November.

For now, local audiences can get in training, and then some, by heading for the Barbican Theatre premiere of "Lipsynch," the latest devised work from the French-Canadian director Robert Lepage, who long ago rewrote the theatrical rules to suit his own distinctive methodology. That begins, among other things, with treating the piece at hand as an evolving organism rather than a fixed event that can be neatly replicated eight times a week, as is the Broadway or West End norm. (Part of the bite08 international season at the Barbican, "Lipsynch" is playing only through Sunday before moving to Madrid from Oct. 25-30 and to Chalons, France, for two performances Nov. 15 and 16; other foreign dates will follow.)

His protean cast, too, are collaborators who actively participate in shaping the whole. Such an aesthetic means something when you've got a daylong marathon like "Lipsynch" running just shy of nine hours - four short intermissions and a 45-minute dinner break included.

Can more, however, sometimes be less? That's the nagging question hovering over an undeniable prestige entry that, to this spectator at least, reaped diminishing returns as the play's nine sections continued counting down. I wouldn't for the world have missed the first half of a discursive meditation on identity and familial connection filtered through the metaphor of the human voice hinted at by the show's very name. But for all that remains beautiful about Lepage's empathy and engagement, "Lipsynch" doesn't build toward the catharsis one has every right to expect; its resolution comes via bathos, not transcendence.

Still, most theater buffs will want to experience "Lipsynch" first and argue about it later, and I doubt there will be much debate about the canny unfolding of narratives that Lepage and his nine-person cast - as you can see, nine is the operative number - lay out before us.

The story begins on a Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Montreal during which a Nicaraguan prostitute named Lupe dies, leaving behind a baby boy who is subsequently taken up and adopted by an opera singer, Ada (played by the opera singer Rebecca Blankenship), herself an orphan. Ada, in turn, ends up in a difficult relationship with the same German border guard, Thomas (Hans Piesbergen), a fledgling neurologist, who has enabled her to find the child. It's Ada's good fortune to come across a functionary who is also a real fan of opera, as is made clear in a delicious passage in which Lepage pokes good-natured fun at officialdom's various guises.

Jeremy (Rick Miller), the boy, grows up and moves to San Francisco to study film, the story proceeding from there to take us on to the fractious set of his first movie, an Oedipal exercise in self-reckoning whose fiery if neurotic leading lady becomes the fledgling director's lover. That occasion is preceded by a celebratory Los Angeles dinner gone awry that constitutes one of the funnier passages of a play that, to its credit, never succumbs to the self-importance often attached to Event Theater (and that musical snatches from the Polish composer Henryk Gorecki might suggest). If anything, a later sequence involving a burdensome, flatulent corpse is pretty silly; Joe Orton got there better, and faster, nearly a half-century ago. What's on evidence throughout is Lepage's insistence on the playfulness inherent in the word "play," which is why his productions tend to walk an intriguing tightrope between wounding seriousness and abundant wit.

He's interested, too, in ripple effects - the ways in which people collide both with one another and with history. Just when you think you've seen the last of the tremor-ridden doctor that Ada's lover eventually becomes, Thomas turns up by the side of Marie (Frederike Bedard), a jazz singer in recovery from a brain tumor whose life is in every way informed by her art: singing "April in Paris" at a late-night club in London's Soho, she offers up a familiar jazz standard as an extended howl of pain. A later section introduces us to Marie's bookish, mentally ill sister, Michelle (Lise Castonguay), whom we encounter one snowy Quebec winter, the gathering flakes creating a visual shimmer strangely absent from the most technically laborious of the various Lepage shows I have seen over the years. (Lepage turns this clunkiness to good advantage during Jeremy's filmmaking passages)

What does "Lipsynch" add up to? Perhaps inevitably, somewhat less than the sum of its nine parts, however exciting it is to see the ensemble shift gears, and indeed voices, in an instant. John Cobb is especially adroit, preceding his defining role as a Scottish detective who has had enough of London with a show-stopping, cross- gender cameo as an aging speech therapist herself succumbing to dementia.

You can while away the play's more extraneous sections pondering the resonances of the title to a show that, ironically, delivers a crucial encounter between a northern English sex worker and her posh- sounding, careerist brother so that we can't hear it, the emphasis on sound taken into the realms of film dubbing, radio broadcast, and, of course, the unfettered power of the human voice lifted into song. And the play, to its credit, delivers up the direct link between a baby's cry heard at the very start and the tears of that same child's hapless mother nearly nine hours later, whose back story emerges in time to bring the narrative full circle.

What's missing is that sense of exhilaration and release of which Lepage some while back became a master, as those who saw "Needles and Opium" or "The Far Side of the Moon" can themselves attest. At one point in the fifth of the nine "episodes," we see Marie trying to decipher the words spoken by her now-deceased father in a grainy old home movie - a task for which she has hired a deaf woman, Louise, gifted at reading lips. Louise tells Marie what she imagines the man's words to be. "That's pretty banal," says Marie. "That's life," replies Louise. The exchange encapsulates a show rich with incident and alive with feeling but not yet at the point where life's banality is transfigured into art.

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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