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The Man in 'the Moon'

Theater artist Robert Lepage takes a postmodernist look at space travel at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.

October 23, 2000|LOUISE ROUG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Robert Lepage, a leading Canadian theater artist, takes the stage Friday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre in "Far Side of the Moon," a play that promises to be quite a trip.

A cultural nomad and somewhat apologetic postmodernist, the 42-year-old director-actor has created some of the most innovative international theater of the last two decades, fusing video, theater and puppetry.

"A lot of people think theater is dead, that it's defunct, a ghost," Lepage said. "Theater is a very specific way of getting people together. A specific ritual. And in order to make it modern and vibrant, you have to invite other vocabularies like video and TV. I don't think that's giving in. It's making theater very modern."

Contemporary audiences are accustomed to jump cuts and flash forwards because stories are told nonstop--from commercials to rock videos.

Using these techniques "is not prostitution," Lepage said. "On the contrary. It's using the intellect of the audience. I try to do that, and in that sense I'm a postmodernist. There are a lot of young playwrights now who use old, dusty ways of telling stories because they want to be produced on Broadway."

Another approach by Lepage is polishing the play during its run so the first performance does not resemble the last.

"The more you perform, the more the story is being sculpted [and] you really discover what the show is about," Lepage said. "That's part of the seduction, the charm--watching something grow."

Or in this case, watching something shrink.

"Far Side of the Moon," initially a three-hour play, has been trimmed to two hours since beginning its European tour in February.

"As it's performed, the dead skin falls off, the chunks you don't need," Lepage said. "Something changes--the structure of the story."

And that approach is a far cry from Broadway.

"The very idea that art develops its meaning in front of the audience as opposed to something preconceived [is] provocative," said Robert Cohen, a professor of theater at UC Irvine. What Lepage tries to create is "theater that's free in its creation and not just a spinoff of English or French theater," Cohen said.

Among other things, Lepage has produced Shakespeare in Britain, Strindberg in Sweden and his plays in his native Quebec and abroad. He has directed opera, five films and a Peter Gabriel rock tour. He has co-written a book and founded Ex Machina, a Canadian theater troupe.

These projects require Lepage to travel between continents several times a month. At one point he temporarily lost his resident status in Quebec because he was spending so much time outside the province.

"Our operation is becoming a little like a circus or these old-style itinerant theater troupes with their canvases, masses of luggage and everything else," Lepage wrote in the appropriately named book, "Connecting Flights."

"All the paraphernalia of the circus might seem like mere decoration on the surface, but it reflects the underlying reality of the work. It tells you a lot about how the artists live and how their art transfuses their entire way of life."

In the new play, space travel becomes part of the narrative as Lepage pits the race to the moon against the competitive relationship between two brothers. The play revolves around the idea that space travel is essentially narcissistic, and the play's main metaphor is the moon as a mirror.

"Whether it's the 16th century or 20th century, every time man is interested in space, we're always looking for ourselves. . . . Before Galileo, people actually thought the moon was a reflecting mirror," Lepage said, suggesting that the central image of the Apollo mission was not man walking on the moon but the vision from the far side of the moon of the Earth rising like a sun.

"The pretext may be space but we're not really interested in Mars," Lepage said. We're looking for something like us. "Very few people dare to look deep into the void and maybe see that there's something up there that doesn't resemble us."

Despite his reputation for technological wizardry onstage, Lepage has kept the new play minimalist.

"For a while I was very much obsessed by technology. It broadens the vocabulary. But this [play] is very low-tech. The set is simple--a bit of machinery, some video work, but it's not overshadowing the storytelling. Since the subject is about technology and engineering . . . you don't want it onstage too."

Instead, the set consist of everyday objects. A dryer, for example, is an imagined spaceship.

It's the playfulness of childhood.

"As a child, you know, you're asking your parents for a transformer or a robot. You play with it for a couple of hours, but you end up playing with the box. It makes a better spaceship. And the story is done in that spirit," Lepage said.

In addition to traveling with "Far Side of the Moon," Lepage is collaborating with Peter Gabriel on a new play, "Zulu Time."

"The charm of theater is that it's so ephemeral. It's such a now thing," he said.

"I always compare it to Michelangelo's snowman. . . . He did this snowman, and everyone said it was amazing . . . fantastic, a masterpiece. But there was no one to record it, to sketch it. It was a spontaneous act.

"Theater is like that. . . . I'm very excited by that--the completely spontaneous thing that happens one night and is never going to happen again."

SHOW TIMES

"Far Side of the Moon," written, performed and directed by Robert Lepage. Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive. Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m. Tickets: $30, $35, $40. (949) 854-4646.

The play, co-commissioned by the Barclay, features an original score by musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson.

A conversation with Lepage will be moderated by Robert Cohen, Thursday, 8 p.m. Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Drive. The event is free, but tickets are required. Information: (949) 854-4646.

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