Artistic temperaments cubed

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Wednesday April 12, 2017
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Olivier Normand, right, plays a contemporary character in<br>ACT's <i>Needles and Opium</i> who<br>always stays in the room at a Paris hotel where such iconoclastic legends as<br>Miles Davis (Wellesley Robertson III) once lived, loved, and bathed. Photo:<br>Tristram Kenton
Olivier Normand, right, plays a contemporary character in
ACT's Needles and Opium who
always stays in the room at a Paris hotel where such iconoclastic legends as
Miles Davis (Wellesley Robertson III) once lived, loved, and bathed. Photo:
Tristram Kenton

You've probably run across that scene from Royal Wedding, the one in which Fred Astaire appears to dance on the walls and ceiling when it's actually the room that's rotating while the camera is locked into one position. Now imagine that scene staged in an oversized Rubik's Cube where the revolving permutations grow exponentially toward a number with more zeros than we need bother with here. That may help provide some impression of how Needles and Opium replicates a kind of druggy dream world in which the scenery not only revolves but also evolves as the characters enter and exit variously through the ceilings, windows, trapdoors, invisible portals, and ways probably unknown.

With a title like Needles and Opium, a pharmacological fantasia cannot be unexpected, not that the characters are in mild-altering conditions during much of the 95-minute production. In fact, one of the primary characters never is under the influence, but his state of mind seems to have absorbed various spirits of previous occupants of Hotel La Louisiane in Paris " specifically Room 9, which this French-Canadian voiceover artist always requests when work takes him to Paris. As he takes a bath, he imagines himself marinating in the spirits of Juliette Greco, Miles Davis, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and other existential bohemians who spent time there.

Some of these spirits do appear in writer-director Robert Lepage's fascinating synthesis of times, histories, places, and personalities that have tangential relationships with one another. Lepage's works, often created with Ex Machina of Quebec, are internationally renowned. After seeing Needles and Opium, it is not surprising to learn that his credits include two Cirque du Soleil productions.

Not that the current ACT presentation involves anything like the scope of a Cirque show, but the room-sized rotating cube within which all the action takes place is bursting with visual astonishments that approach the transcendent. Some of the verbal transcendence is provided by Jean Cocteau, notably passages from his 1950 essay "A Letter to Americans," which he wrote on the flight back to Paris after his first visit to New York. It's a presumptuous critique, a generalization of a continent based on one city, but it is also exquisitely written and not without truths that have their own resonances in today's world.

Cocteau is something of an outside commentator to the principal action. Lepage thought that the fact that Cocteau was making his first visit to America at the same time Miles Davis was discovering Paris, and the fact that both fought addictions that may have refocused their creativity as artists, have earned them a place in the same play. That's not entirely convincing, but it's hard to bend out of shape a piece with a shape as malleable as Needles and Opium.

Our main connection to recognizable reality is Robert, a fish out of water in Paris even though he is a French-speaking Canadian. In the studio where he is providing both English and French narration for a documentary about the brief but passionate love affair between iconoclastic chanteuse Juliette Greco and groundbreaking musician Miles Davis, he's on a comically different professional wavelength from his producers. He nearly makes it to the end of the assignment before choking. He claims fatigue, and asks for another chance the next morning, as he heads to Room 9 at Hotel La Louisiane for sleep that a recently broken heart prevents from descending.

Meanwhile, various portals of time and place open as we see Davis and Cocteau drift in and out of the cube, or even slide down its skewed sides, as projections place them anywhere from a pawnshop to the stratosphere to a cockamamie photo shoot for Life magazine. Quebec actor Olivier Normand is excellent as our everyman Robert, his existential crisis in full bloom, and also plays almost unrecognizably the ethereal Cocteau, emphasizing a French accent that is an occasional challenge to decipher. Wellesley Robertson III is kept mute as Miles Davis save for a few mimed riffs on the trumpet, a choice of verbal silence for no obvious reason.

But the cube designed by Carl Fillion, filled with sounds, lighting, props, and images designed by, respectively, Jean-Sebastien Cote, Bruno Matte, Claudia Gendreau, and Lionel Arnould, is definitely a star of the show thanks to the endlessly imaginative ways Lepage uses it to tell a story tied together by geometric form. At the curtain call, after the two actors have taken their bows, the stage suddenly fills up with the 14 black-garbed men and women who have been invisibly making the magic happen all at the time.

 

Needles and Opium will run at the Geary Theater through April 23. Tickets are $20-$105. Call (415) 749-2228 or go to act-sf.org.