Splendid visuals in Lepage’s Needles and Opium at ACT

Needles 1
Wellesley Robertson III (left) as Miles Davis and Olivier Normand as Jean Cocteau in Robert Lepage’s Needles and Opium at ACT’s Geary Theater through April 23. Below: Normand as Cocteau. Photos by Tristram Kenton

With Needles and Opium, writer, director and theatrical visionary Robert Lepage has created a show that will be remembered – not necessarily for what it’s about but definitely for the way it looks.

What began as a 1991 one-man show performed by Lepage himself in his native Québec City has evolved into a theatrical marvel, the kind of show that creates one jaw-dropping image after another.

You could say it’s still a one-man show…ish. There’s a very Lepage-ish central character named Robert (Olivier Normand, an actor from Québec who is in Paris to narrate a documentary about jazz trumpeter Miles Davis’ 1949 concerts in a Parisian jazz festival. He’s also suffering intensely from a broken heart. From his room in the Hôtel de la Louisiane (Room No. 9, which is significant because it was once occupied by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir) he struggles through his pain leaning heavily on the music of Miles Davis, who appears as a silent, trumpet-playing character played by Wellesley Robertson III, and on the writings of Jean Cocteau, specifically his 1949 “Lettre aux Américains,” written on his way back to France after spending time in New York.

Unlike Davis, whose silence (save for his trumpet playing) seems strange, Cocteau, also played by Normand, talks a lot, with his most engaging monologue happening during a creative photo session with Life magazine. The notable thing about this trio of men – Robert, Davis, Cocteau – is that Davis and Cocteau are pretty interesting, while Robert isn’t. We hear him work his way through a tedious recording session for the documentary while watching images of Davis’ former lover, Juliette Gréco, flicker on the wall. We hear uncomfortable phone conversations with an operator, a front-desk clerk, a hypnotherapist and the ex who shattered his heart. In each of these cases, the constraints of the solo show are apparent as he must repeat what the invisible person has said in some way for our benefit.

Needles 2

While the narrative of the piece, which also encompasses Davis’ battle with heroin (apparently Cocteau also battled opium addiction much of his life), never comes across as terribly cohesive or even compelling, Lepage’s visual storytelling is mind blowing. With his team from Ex Machina, he has created a show that doesn’t really need dialogue. I’d have probably been just as happy, if not happier, to watch the show unfold with only Davis’ music to accompany it. It’s something along the lines of high art/high intellect meets theme park razzle dazzle, which is a surprisingly tasty combination.

Set designer Carl Fillion has created a tiny rotating space at center stage: it’s three sides of a cube, and the action is confined almost entirely on, in or around the cube, with minimal activity (like a brief image of Gréco in a bathtub) happening on the floor of the stage. Actors are harnessed to or dangled above the cube, and the space becomes a hotel room, the streets of New York, outer space, the streets of Paris, a recording studio, a concert hall and various unnamable psychic spaces occupied by artists, addicts and the lovelorn. Images (by Lionel Arnould), both still and moving, are projection mapped onto the cube with astonishing precision and variety to help define all the different locations, and the acute lighting by Bruno Matte and sound design by Jean-Sébastien Côté further sharpen and deepen the theatrical experience. Director Louis Malle even appears briefly through the magic of projection to talk about hiring Davis to score his movie Elevator to the Gallows.

Doors and windows and trapdoors continue appearing the walls of the cube. Beds and lamps and chairs suddenly appear and then just as suddenly disappear. Cocteau, seen hovering in space, even appears to dive into a hole in the floor. It’s all astonishing and marvelous and dazzling – so much so, in fact, that all the other details, like the characters and their lives, can’t help but pale in comparison. But for about 95 minutes, Needls and Opium is like an extraordinary hallucination, a vivid dream whose details vanish but leave a sense of wonder in its wake.

Robert Lepage’s Needles and Opium continues through April 23 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$105. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Thrilling return to form in trippy Totem


One of the most thrilling acts in Cirque du Soleil’s Totem involves five women on tall unicycles. Photo by Daniel Auclair. Below: Louis-David Simoneau and Rosalie Ducharme are absolutely charming in their trapeze duet. Photo by David Desmarais

It’s never good to speak ill of those no longer with us, but the last touring Cirque du Soleil show that stopped in San Francisco, Ovo, was all about the insect world. And truth be told, it bugged. The show only added to my Cirque fatigue – a feeling that my enthusiasm for the company, which had once thrilled me beyond belief, was wearing terribly thin.

But then along comes Totem, the latest touring show from the Montreal-based circus empire, and the enthusiasm barometer rises again. This show, playing in the yellow-and-blue striped “grand chapiteau” behind AT&T Park, returns a sense of wonder to the big top. There’s visual magic in this show and scenes of breathtaking beauty.

Directed by famed Canadian artist Robert Lepage, the man responsible for the Las Vegas behemoth Ka, Totem has some of the Vegas wow factor (especially in aspects of Carl Fillion’s amazing set) but it has a human scale, which is helpful because the theme of the show is human evolution. Like any Cirque show, that theme floats in and out to make room for some astonishing circus acts (which you could consider the highest form of human evolution if, in addition to being beautiful and thrilling, contributed in some way to world peace) and, more awkwardly, the clown bits.

At more than 2 ½ hours (including a 30-minute intermission), Totem is packed with thrills, but even more than the gravity-defying acrobats, it is infused with visual lyricism. The musical score (by composers Bob & Bill) has that vaguely South Asian feel and heavy percussive tone that so many Cirque shows have, and I wished the music were a better match for the visuals.

The set includes a round performance area in the foreground, and at the back of the stage, behind the tall reeds is the eight-piece band and a bridge to the central performance area. Under that bridge is an extraordinary screen filled with high-def images of water in many forms. We see waves crashing on the shore, rippling waves across a pond, lava burping from a volcano and, most stunningly, a massive waterfall with spray seeming to come right out of the screen.

Duo trapeze fixe_d.auclair_0643

The most thrilling of the acts involves five women on tall unicycles. At Friday’s opening-night performance, one of the women fell and rushed off stage. As the other women continued kicking bowls and catching them on their heads (a feat that sounds rudimentary but is actually incredibly exciting), the fallen performer returned to a rousing ovation and only heightened the thrill of the act. The fumble reminded us that even Cirque professionals – the best of the best – are just people, and that raised the stakes for every act that followed. Error is good – grounding and oh so very human.

In Act 2, fixed-trapeze duo Louis-David Simoneau and Rosalie Ducharme completely charmed the audience with their artistry and good humor. What differentiates their act is the hint of story and character. Theirs is a tale of courtship and anger and aggression and submission, all on a trapeze, high above a safety cushion on the stage floor.

Also in Act 2, what started as a clown act with the Darwin-like Greg Kennedy cavorting with an ape turned into a dazzling display of juggling colored lights within a giant plastic cone. I’d never seen anything like it and loved every minute of it.

As ever, the technical aspects of the show are stunning, especially the colorful and bold costumes by Kym Barrett. Her Aztec cosmonaut costumes for the final act of the evening (an impressive Russian bars routine) were like high fashion if there had been a catwalk in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The best visual joke of the evening involves the seven stages of man’s evolution, beginning with ape and ending with a guy in a suit on a mobile phone. That has to be Lepage working the show’s theme like the substantial showman he is.

It seems Cirque shows are constantly striving for something new, and that’s certainly admirable, but too often they stray from the core entertainment and wonderful dazzle that the earlier shows offered in such abundance. Totem is more like those early shows, which may seem like reverse evolution, but it’s really just mastery of the form.

[bonus interview]
I chatted with Totem director Robert Lepage and costume designer Kym Barrett for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.


Cirque du Soleil’s Totem continues an extended run through Dec. 18 in the tent behind AT&T Park in San Francisco. Show opens in San Jose on March 2. Tickets are $47-$248.50. Call 800-450-1480 or visit www.cirquedusoleil.com.

Kym Barrett designs a Cirque evolution

Cirque 1
Cirque 2
Top: One of Kym Barrett’s designs for Cirque du Soleil’s Totem. Bottom: Barrett’s costumes as they appear in the touring show. Below: Costume designer Kym Barrett. Photos courtesy of Cirque du Soleil

You don’t go to a Cirque du Soleil show just to see the costumes. Audiences are usually slathering for the death-defying acrobatics and goofy clowns. But what separates a Cirque show from the rest of the circus fray is the spectacle, and that certainly has a lot to do with the costumes.

The latest touring Cirque opus is Totem, another artsy epic under a blue-and-yellow striped tent behind AT&T Park. The theme for this show is evolution, and the costumes are by a charming Australian designer named Kym Barrett. She’s best known for her work in movies – perhaps you’ve seen one of the Matrix movies or Speed Racer? If you haven’t caught one of those, you can check out her work in the upcoming reboot of the Spider-man franchise and the film adaptation of the hit novel Cloud Atlas.
Kym Barrett
I interviewed Barrett and Totem director Robert Lepage (a Canadian theater icon) for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Check out the story here.

Here’s Lepage on working with Barrett:

“We’re not doing period pieces. We create a kind of closed-circuit universe with its own laws and color charts and vocabulary. Kym came with all of that. She is extremely creative, funny, playful and versatile and immediately set the tone for the universe we were creating. This is very much her show. We didn’t even know the characters we were trying to create, but she had photos and fabrics and references and ideas. She was very inspiring.”

And here’s a word from Barrett:

“By the end of the show we’re into kind of Aztec astronaut stuff. We used a lot of imagery from Aztec culture, but all the patterns you see in the actual fabric are from around the world. It’s sort of a designer United Nations in a way. They transcend their borders and move into the next sphere together. It’s all a bit transcendental.”


Cirque du Soleil’s Totem continues through Dec. 11 behind AT&T Park in San Francisco. Tickets are $47-$248.50. Call (800) 450-1480 or visit www.cirquedusoleil.com.