Reviewed by on    Theatre in Canada, Theatre in Ottawa and the region   ,

The  latest creation  by Robert Lepage  has finally come home. It opened a year ago in Quebec. It has since played in Australia France, England , no doubt changing with each new performance  because Lepage’s stagings, which  continuously absorb new  elements,  are never really finished but ultimately in a state of permanent process.

I have seen most of Lepage’s works and it appears clear that the Andersen Project displays a level of elegant refinement ,  a stage  esthetics that has been  purified to a point of  perfection that I have never before seen in his work. Gone are the flashy gimmicks, the  spectacular effects ,the accumulation of gasp inducing  technical apparatus. This is a work of  discrete flowing beauty, that appears to be  so flawless, its traces  implant themselves   insidiously  and indelibly  in the memory of the spectator.

Frédéric Lapointe, a Quebec songwriter, has been invited by the director of the Palais Garnier, the former opera, before the  Opera of the Bastille was built, to adapt a tale by Hans Christian Andersen (La Dryade)  for  the Paris National Opera.  The Quebecois soon learns that they intend to get rid of him because they do not like his writing.  As Lapointe  works through his adaptation, multiple threads of visual associations, the basis of Lepage’s creative process,  become intertwined in his Parisian stay.  He travels to England to convince the coproducers that Andersen’s text is actually more than it appears. The character of Andersen takes on a life of its own as questions of  sexuality , a familiar theme in Lepage’s  work, become a strong  undercurrent in this performance, associated with the sexual ambivalence of the  director of the  Paris Opera , and well as that of  Andersen,  linked as well to the ‘coming out’ as it were, of the little Dryade who finally dares to leave her  chestnut tree and go out into the big city to discover the streets of Paris.

With his sense of play and caustic wit, Lepage  ties in references to  the  current French society, the North African population in the  suburbs, the strikes that plague every day life, and a certain paternalism in relation to Quebec . In a final great close up on the screen, Frederic Lapointe   tells us that this experience in Paris  is  probably a good lesson for the Quebecois. We must stop looking for  approval from  the French for our own cultural activity. He appears to suggest that a  certain form of colonial mentality still functions in the  Province in relation to the former colonizer.  To what extent is Lepage settling accounts for some personal disappointment, is hard to say but he has put his finger on an uneasy truth.

The final images show us a close up of  Lepage disappearing in a blast of fire, the end of the  dependent artist who will soon rise like the phoenix and find his own creative voice  once again.

The criss crossing of parallel themes and images creates a most exciting stage performance as troubled humanity  intersects, not because of a particular narrative but because individuals   share similar obsessions, similar events in their own lives. As the lives of Hans Christian Andersen incapable of consummating a relationship, the Quebecois writer who is losing his girlfriend and the director of the opera in the process of  losing his family  coincide with the presence  of the young man from the Maghreb who  runs a peep show,  “ tags”  public spaces with his cans of spray paint and wipes up the sordid remains of the sexual misery that the men leave in their wake.

Even a strong erotic moment  between  Andersen   (Lepage)  and Jenny Lind represented by a headless mannequin who is  slowly but forcefully undressed by the writer, leaves a bitter flavour of failure. This is the woman he loved  but could never treat as anyone but his sister. And those moments when he tears off her layers of  petticoats and then suddenly buries his eyes in his hands, were much more expressive of the  impotence shared by human beings, than any words could possibly tell us.

What we are left with mostly however,  is a cascade of images that dissolve gently into each other, showing the shimmering instability of this visual world, as the screens slide back and forth, showing  the process of mediation through which the artist’s imagination must inevitably filter.  This show dissects Lepage’s own creative process to an extent that I have never seen before.

It all takes place within  a rectangular  space that  resembles a High definition TV screen. The staging is constructed on two planes: first  a horizontal one that  has Lepage moving across the stage on a Parisian Metro, in a bar, strolling through the Tuileries gardens at the Louvre,   walking his dog Fanny., or showing the unspoken activities behind the closed doors of the peep show…in that line up of  cubby holes  across the stage.

The other plane which produces the most  astounding images is the one that runs from the front to the back of the stage, creating a third dimension and allowing the characters to interact with enormous images projected on a huge screen behind them.   The men can meet at the Café de la Paix  in the middle of Paris  against the background of Palais Garnier.

New film techniques capture the  gray  dissolving countryside that flows by as Lapointe sits  on a train hurtling back to Paris,  caught in shafts of light  and then dissolved into a flashy discotheque where he dances the night away.  Or the director of the opera moves  through the halls of the Palais  Garnier  and climbs the elegant staircase up to the theatre as the  Dryade, leaves her chestnut tree and  visits the downtown shops by night.  Sometimes, we see  objects taken from the

Hans Christian  Andersen Museum transformed into pieces of sculpture, set against a  pure white background almost like Holograms;  these are  personal possessions that have become cultural artifacts under the technological gaze of Lepage .

The Project Andersen is about the artistic process: it is present as a theme and it is revealed  by the way the technology  operates on the stage.  This magnificent fusion of images, poetic associations  and refined contemporary technological handicraft  is a unique artistic experience that will leave you wanting to see more. The two hours fly by very quickly.  The Andersen Project plays in the Theatre of the NAC until  April 1, 2006.

Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht

The Andersen Project (Le projet Andersen)

Conceived, written, directed and performed by Robert Lepage

With  Ex Machina

Set:                             Jean Le Bourdais

Lighting:                     Nicolas Marois

Sound                         Jean-Sebastien Côté

Costumes                    Catherine Higgins

Props                          Marie-France Larivière

Images                                    Jacques Collin, Véronique Couturier, David Leclerc

Co produced with theatres from

London, (the Barbican). Paris ((le Festival d’automne), Créteil (Maison des Arts), Ottawa (Centre national des Arts), Montréal (Théâtre du nouveau monde), Québec (théâtre du Trident), the Foundation Hans Christian Andersen 2005, and the Sydney Festival.