Far Side of the Moon has breathtaking visual poetry
Written and directed by Robert Lepage. An Ex Machina production, presented by SFU Woodward's in collaboration with Théâtre la Seizième and with community partner PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. In the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre at SFU’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts on Thursday, November 1. Continues until November 10
There seems to be less this time around. Robert Lepage’s Far Side of the Moon, which Vancouver first saw at the Playhouse in 2002, still contains some of the most breathtaking visual poetry you’ll ever see, but, on second viewing, the thematic and especially the narrative weaknesses become more insistent.
At the core of Far Side of the Moon lurks an inspired—and dizzying—dynamic: the quotidian tragedy of middle-aged Philippe’s mother’s death combines with images from the space race. So, as Philippe fears coming undone, cosmonauts and astronauts venture into the void of the universe—experiencing a previously unimaginable depth of aloneness. As the United States and the Soviet Union compete for dominance in space, Philippe and his estranged brother André bicker on the telephone. Philippe’s quiet internal experience achieves the unsettling scale of Greek tragedy as the urgent voices of television announcers narrate epic acts of daring.
And the round window in the washing machine in which Philippe is laundering his mom’s clothes before giving them away becomes the door of the space capsule. The plasticity of the imagery in Far Side of the Moon is a joy. As the giant mirrored ceiling of the playing area rotates—it looks kind of like the wing of an airplane—Philippe disappears, then reappears as his mother in her youth. An astronaut (a puppet) gazes through the washing-machine window, then ventures through it, trailing its man-made umbilical cord. The mother embraces this childlike figure and dances with it. Theatrically, it doesn’t get much better than this.
And Laurie Anderson’s score, which combines heroic, percussive, chords and Asian-sounding melodies, is always compelling.
The first time I saw the show, the poetry of the piece—and its emotional content—astonished and sustained me. This time, it wasn’t enough. Far Side of the Moon runs for two hours without a break, and, after about half of that time, I felt like I had gotten pretty much everything I was going to get from its exploration of existential singularity. Lepage has conjured a spare beauty in this creation, a meditative spaciousness that makes it work—and that gets repetitive after a while.
A stronger narrative might help. Far Side of the Moon purports to tell a story of two brothers, but we see so little of Philippe’s sibling André that the resolution of their tale feels arbitrary. And at least one section, in which a young André smokes dope and trips through Philippe’s stuff, seems superfluous.
On opening night, Yves Jacques, who is performing this essentially solo show until Sunday (November 4)—Lepage himself takes the stage from Tuesday to next Saturday (November 6 to 10)—looked a little off his game, tripping over lines here and there. And he sometimes overplayed the movement: the mother character walked more like a drag queen than a woman, for instance.
Seeing Far Side of the Moon for the second time is a bit like seeing a lover you were crazy about in your youth and realizing that, although he’s still compelling in some ways, he’s a bit more ordinary than you thought.