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Don't Begrudge His Budget

June 11, 2009

It's easy to begrudge Robert Lepage's big budgets. After last night's performance of the Canadian theatrical auteur's production The Blue Dragon, staged at Zellerbach Playhouse under the auspices of Berkeley University's Cal Performances, I overheard a few audience members grumbling about Lepage's expensive-looking hydraulic scenery and stage gadgetry.

"Why does he spend all this money on tiny little details when he could suggest them just as easily without going to all the expense?" one theater-goer wondered. "I could have staged that scene as imaginatively without the hooplah," said another.

In a way, the dissenters have a point. Like many of his other technology-heavy productions, Lepage's dreamlike stage poem about friendship, geopolitics and the relationship between ancient and new artforms is packed with what might be construed as gratuitous effects. A couple of times, for instance, a tiny, perfectly-constructed electric model train with bright yellow pinpoints of light in each window scuttles across the length of the stage while the actors cycle along on specially modified bikes. The effect creates a wonderful sense of perspective, with the actors on bikes seeming close to us and the train in the far distance. But the scene scantly contributes to the story-telling or our understanding of the characters.

On the other hand, I have to admit that I'm delighted by Lepage's use of his obviously ample resources. With so few theatre-makers having access to anything near enough cash to allow them to explore their creative vision to the full, it's rather wonderful to see someone with as much imagination as Lepage not only attracting the funding he needs to make the productions he wants, but also using the money in such an intelligent, engaging and emotionally provocative way.

A few Broadway and West End productions as well as Cirque du Soleil can claim sizeable design budgets. But in most cases, the clunky offerings we see in the commercial theatre come across as a waste of money. With Lepage, however, it seems like every cent is well spent.

Some of the design elements of last night's show will stay in my memory for a very long time. I don't think I'll forget the sight of actress Marie Michaud (who co-wrote and co-stars in the production alongside Lepage) returning to her friend's minimalist Shanghai home from a heavy night out on the town against a projected "wallpaper" background of fierce TV-style static in a hurry. The visual representation of a hangover completely conveys the character's inner feelings. Lepage's images are pure stage poetry -- and right on the money as far as I'm concerned.

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