Review: ‘Needles and Opium’ at A.C.T. (*****)

by Charles Kruger

Olivier Normand as Jean Cocteau in Robert Lepage’s visually astounding “Needles and Opium” at A.C.T. (Photo Credit: Tristram Kenton.)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

On arriving at A.C.T. for the opening night performance of Robert Lepage’s “Needles and Opium” my guest and I encountered two colleagues from the Critics Circle who were buzzing with excitement to see the work of Mr. Lepage for the first time. And no wonder. Lepage is certainly one of the world’s greatest living theatre artists and, at 59 years old, remains in the heyday of his career. In addition to having distinguished acting career, he is an accomplished playwright and director. He has staged operas for many of the world’s leading companies (including a controversial design for Wagner’s complete “Ring Cycle” for the Metropolitan Opera). He is also a Companion of the Order of Canada. “Needles and Opium”  is my first encounter with his work, and it lives up to its reputation.

A contemporary American actor, Robert (played by Olivier Normand), travels to Paris to work on the narration of a documentary film about Miles Davis, who visited that city in the 1940s, encountered the milieu of the existentialists, and had a brief, passionate affair with singer and actress Juliette Gréco. Robert, who is  grieving a romantic breakup of his own, arranges to stay in room number nine at the Hotel La Louisiane, the very hotel room where Gréco and Davis made love.

Over the course of several days, Robert goes to a recording studio to work on the documentary film, consults a hypnotist to assist him in getting over his obsession with his lost love, and spends his evenings haunted by thoughts of Gréco and Davis as well as the filmmaker, Jean Cocteau, Davis’s contemporary.

The thematic link between Robert, Davis (played by Wellesley Robertson III), and Cocteau (played by the same actor who plays Robert, Olivier Normand)  is addiction—needles and opium and love—along with artistic creation, and foreign travel.

Robert’s efforts to survive his grief and thrive as a creative artist are explored through a series of vignettes involving all the characters that seem to haunt his hotel room. The content is as much visual as vocal, and the emphasis is on feeling rather than plot. The hotel room is represented by a revolving cube suspended over the stage, with actors  who appear to be floating, climbing walls, passing through hidden doors, and traveling to other locations including Robert’s recording studio and the streets of New York through the use of ingenious projections. This last effect is an amazing one in which Davis appears to be riding a subway, crossing a busy street, and wandering through alleys. The work by set designer Carl Fillion and images designer Lionel Arnould and the rest of the design crew is incredible.

The actors (who are accomplished circus artists) are sometimes sliding down the walls of the cube, sometimes suspended on cables, sometimes performing acrobatic flips in the air to move from scene to scene, and occasionally stepping out of the cube onto the stage floor. It is astonishing and wonderful.

But “Needles and Opium” is not just visual magic, wonderful as that is. The script explores multiple themes of love, art, and addiction, touching on historical details, offering poetic riffs on Cocteau’s Orpheus films, and including realistic reflections and conversations by Robert as he struggles to make sense of his experience. Robert doesn’t interact directly with Davis or Cocteau, but he does talk with his unseen colleagues in the recording studio, his ex-girlfriend in New York, and the not very sympathetic hotel telephone operator, all of whom seem as real as the actors onstage.

For 90 minutes, the audience rides an emotional and visual roller coaster, steeped in thematic content with little explanation or plotting, before being tossed out of the maelstrom back into the theatre, spent and astounded, with much to think and reflect upon.

“Needles and Opium” is like nothing you have seen before. Try not to miss it.

“Needles and Opium” continues at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater through April 23 at the Geary Theater. For further information, click here.

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Rating: *****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

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“Needles and Opium,” written and directed by Robert Lepage, English translation by Jenny Montgomery. Produced by Ex Machine in coproduction with A.C.T. Director: Robert Lepage. Scenic Designer: Carl Fillion. Props Designer: Claudia Gendreau. Music and Sound Designer: Jean-Sébastien Côté. Lighting Designer: Bruno Matte. Costume Designer: François St-Aubin. Images Designer: Lionel Arnould.

Cast:

Robert, Jean Cocteau: Olivier Normand. Miles Davis: Wellesley Robertson III.

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