By Marie Michaud and Robert Lepage. Directed by Robert Lepage. An Ex Machina production. Presented by SFU Contemporary Arts and the Cultural Olympiad with Théí¢tre La Seizií¨me. At SFU at Woodward’s Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre on Thursday, February 4. Continues until February 27
The stagecraft is extraordinary. The storytelling isn’t.
In The Blue Dragon, writers Marie Michaud and Robert Lepage check in on Pierre Lamontagne, the central character of The Dragons’ Trilogy, which Michaud and Lepage premiered in 1985. In The Blue Dragon, Pierre is a 50-year-old art dealer living in Shanghai and conducting an affair with a young artist named Xiao Ling. Their already shaky relationship gets more complicated when Claire Forêt, a former lover of Pierre’s, shows up planning to adopt a Chinese toddler.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to get into this story, partly because Lepage’s flat performance as Pierre is such an energy-sucking black hole that the supposed romantic tensions make no sense. The written characterization is also weak. The title refers to a tattoo on Pierre’s back, and he talks about the darkness it represents. But what the hell is that darkness and what is its source? Pierre tells us that he had a strict, emotionally unavailable father. It’s not enough.
The narrative doesn’t gain any traction until the two women essentially decide to dump Pierre and become friends. Claire’s adoption plans haven’t worked out, and Xiao Ling discovers she’s pregnant. Will Claire adopt Xiao Ling’s baby? At last, something comprehensible is at stake.
Michaud is a warmly appealing performer and Claire is recognizable and sympathetic: an alcoholic, 46-year-old advertising executive who’s desperate to make a human connection. Claire’s relationship to Xiao Ling also raises questions about exploitation and benefit.
Still, the narrative is less than complex and it’s riddled with holes. Why does Xiao Ling so eagerly adopt her lover’s ex as a friend and start sharing intimate moments with her, for instance? Yes, a mother-daughter relationship emerges, but doesn’t Xiao Ling have any pals of her own?
Fortunately, the stage pictures that director Lepage and his collaborators create on Michel Gauthier’s fabulous machine of a set are gorgeous. On a bicycle, its suspended wheels spinning in the air, Pierre pedals through what looks like a watercolour of the Chinese countryside as Tai Wei Foo, who plays Xiao Ling, performs a communist-style ballet, complete with a rifle and what appears to be a tattoo gun. In a multipanelled video montage, the Yangtze Kiang or Blue River snakes in sensuous rhythms. And in a masterful passage, points of light—maybe stars—float on closed panels that open one at a time to reveal the story of Pierre’s relationship with Xiao Ling: they meet when she tattoos him; they go on a bicycle ride; he views their child for the first time.
The lavish stage pictures in The Blue Dragon will be enough for many viewers. For me, the imagery is a spectacular pedestal that supports too little in the way of story and ideas.