Canadian theatremaker Robert LePage takes Toronto audiences on a visual, personal journey through modern-day Shanghai in The Blue Dragon.
2012 is the Year of the Dragon on the Chinese calendar, but in the hands of Canadian theatre mastermind Robert LePage, the place where dragons really shine is on one of Toronto’s biggest stages.
The Blue Dragon opened last night at the Royal Alexandra Theatre. Years in the making, it’s a sequel of sorts to LePage’s seminal work of the 1980s, The Dragon Trilogy.
When we last saw him, LePage’s alter ego, art school graduate Pierre LaMontagne, was about to leave Montreal for a life in China, then an unknown and mysterious place. Twenty years of changes in global development and power dynamics later, Pierre (Henri Chassé) now owns a gallery in Shanghai, lives in a neighbourhood about to be demolished, and is in a relationship with a young, up-and-coming contemporary artist Xiao Ling (Tai Wei Foo) whose emotions strongly contrast the values of her country. When Claire Forêt (co-writer Marie Michaud), Pierre’s estranged wife, pays him a visit while on her way to adopt a child, the three face new situations—much like the nation of China itself.
With several of his projects making headlines—including Cirque du Soleil’s Totem, Wagner’s The Ring Cycle for the Metropolitan Opera, a graphic novel adaptation of The Blue Dragon, and Spades, a new show that will premiere in Madrid in April—LePage is still as relevant as ever on the world theatrical scene. His visual style is the stuff of magic: it’s as though he sees the same possibilities on an empty stage that a painter sees on a blank canvas—or in the case of The Blue Dragon, the same ones a tattoo artist sees on the human body. Amazingly, Michael Gauthier’s protean two-level set takes LePage’s limitless visions and makes them a reality. David Leclerc’s breathtaking projections never overwhelm our senses. They remain balanced and controlled enough to captivate our eyes while our minds are fixed on the characters’ words. A snowfall in Shanghai, Pierre’s tattoo monologue, bike rides through the city, and Foo’s dance sequences stand out as particularly visually stunning. Other scenes, like a confrontation between Pierre and Claire in the middle of a blackout, were engrossing in their technical simplicity.
But supporting such visuals is a densely layered script that uses these three characters as keys into China’s dichotomy between tradition and progress. It relies heavily on symbolism and metaphors to discuss legacy, maturity, identity, and re-birth—but a few funny and simple doses of humanity in the performances of Michaud, Chassé, and Foo crucially keep the show grounded.
The impact of the show lasts as long as an audience member is willing to think about it. We kept having exciting revelations on the way home. Such is the work of LePage. And with talk of his going “un-plugged” in future works, the Year of the Dragon is definitely the time to catch him.