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Robert Lepage piques our interest.... sort of

The Tohu edifice sits on top of the old Miron quarry in Montreal’s east end, as does the sprawling Ecocentre headquarters right next to it. The relationship between the two, and the play we were going to see, manifested itself in the massive plumes of smoke and horrific noise coming out of the EcoCentre. It was opening night of Robert Lepage’s Pique and streams of us were walking towards the place as if to Mordor.

Lepage, the dark master of Quebec theatre, couldn’t have asked for a better entrance. Set on a 360° circular stage, the play has a vertical rather than a horizontal physicality. Heads, bodies, props emerge from the otherwise flat surface; doors rise, little openings surprise; entire rooms half submerged below the edges.It opens in the dark, a shaman-like character (who returns to conclude the piece) circling and circling the stage, whistling softly like a slow-whirling dervish. After that, a handful of separate stories play out, cross paths, heave, and then, it must be said, implode.

Marie-Ève and Jean-François are a Quebecois couple who have come to Las Vegas to get married, but Dick, the hot Latino lover, gets in the way. UN soldiers, one from Spain, one from Denmark, are on furlough from training exercises in the Nevada desert. Two television executives are having an affair while at a convention. There’s also a wise barman, an illegal chambermaid, a sex worker, burlesque dancers, a greedy doctor. Played by 6 actors (Sylvio Arriola, Nuria Garcia, Tony Guilfoyle, Martin Haberstroh, Sophie Martin, Roberto Mori), the performances were consistently outstanding, textured and compelling.

What it all means, however, is quite another thing. Las Vegas is not a random location for a Quebec story. Aside from the obvious casino setting, Las Vegas is where bourgeois Quebec goes to live – and die. From snowbirds to Celine Dion to Cirque du Soleil, it is a middle class purgatory where on the one hand Quebec culture is validated, while on the other Quebec culture doesn’t exist at all except as a shrewd business transaction.

Pique, like anything set in the southern American desert, is almost entirely in English and Spanish. Marie-Ève and JF speak in French, but that is the only time you hear it. Instead, other, more compelling characters (lost soldiers, panicked Mexicans, Faustian television executives) speak English or Spanish, their struggles overshadowing the petty jealousies of the two suburbanites from Quebec City. One scene – the most virtuosic of the 2 ½ hour performance, where the four corners of the stage is occupied by the hotel’s Latino workers who are all arguing with each other – is not only entirely in Spanish, it is not even subtitled.All this made me acutely aware of the full house audience on this opening night.

The hoi polloi, having made the pilgrimage to witness their most honoured dramaturge, were served a long night of foreign languages. Not just any foreign languages: English and, rapidly overtaking French as the second language of choice for anyone outside of Quebec, Spanish. This is definitely not a Michel Tremblay theatrical experience, Dorothy. I could only wonder if Marois or Drainville were in the house.

So what is Robert Lepage up to? While the soldier thread had powerful elements to it (an exercise in interrogation techniques gone bad, a brutal sexual assault by the commander on one of his soldiers), and the television executive embodied a moral tightrope we all walk, and the illegal chambermaid confronted the brutality of American materialism, what does it all add up to? Marie-Ève and JF, defeated and deflated, end the play in tears and knots. Like the others, they add nothing to their environment and will take away nothing of value.

Perhaps only the shaman retains some dignity. But then again – really, Lepage? Quebec has nothing of value to say to or about its Native populations, and they, as in Pique, remain nameless and anonymous, a shorthand projection for a discarded spirituality. Is Lepage being facile…. or sly?

Lepage has been quoted saying he wants his theatre to represent the world, much as Shakespeare’s Globe “tried to represent the universe.” It’s curious, is it not, that in Lepage’s world, Quebec plays a diminished role, beset by its own neuroses and consumerism, its petty needs satisfied by a man in a white jumpsuit singing Elvis songs. At Lepage’s card table, have Quebecers won or lost?Pique is the first of a four-part theatrical cycle, Jeux de cartes. Coeur opens on January 30, while Carreau and Trefle are anticipated but no dates attached.

First posted in Rover, January 2014.


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