Reviewed by Robert Lepage has a new conjuring trick to show off. In his latest show, Spades, instead of pulling rabbits out of a hat, the Quebec director plucks surprise after surprise out of a giant hockey puck.
Blackjack tables and hotel pools, Elvis impersonators and showgirls, Viking warriors and coalition soldiers - all manifest magically out of the show’s incredible, circular stage.
Even Osama bin Laden pops out to say hello.
Telling a series of interwoven stories set in Las Vegas at the beginning of the American invasion of Iraq, Spades is the first of a four-part series of playing card-themed plays that Lepage is developing for a network of theatre-in-the-round venues in Europe.
In theatre-in-the-round, or arena staging, the audience surrounds the actors on all sides - like at a boxing match. There’s not a permanent theatre of this type in Toronto, so Luminato has kindly built a temporary one in the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre.
It is usually a low-tech, intimate and interactive way of staging a show - think buskers with a crowd gathered around them.
For Spades, however, Lepage ignores the natural strengths of the form and reinvents it as a vertical spectacle, where performers and elaborate sets and props are all hidden in compartments under the stage or overhead in what looks like a hovering spaceship. (Jean Hazel is the set designer.)
While Lepage occasionally has his six multilingual performers - you might think there are a dozen more thanks to Rachel Tremblay’s wigs - act on top of the puck, more frequently they are performing in trenches within it.
We often see only the tops of the actors as they make their way around half-sunken rooms or bars or get buried up to their necks in the desert sand.
One of the most impressive images Lepage creates comes as smoke pours out of the puck’s centre hatch and gets sucked in swirls into the ceiling by a high-powered fan - a tornado on stage.
Spades is definitely a production where you walk out humming the set. The story - a collectively created one that's currently clocking in at about three hours without intermission - is less impressive in its current form. Indeed, it seems to go round and round while staying in the same spot, like the puck’s rotating outer rim.
The characters include two soldiers - one from Spain, the other from Denmark - training in the desert to be part of the Coalition of the Willing while secretly carrying on a gay love affair.
Then there’s a Quebec couple - he, a physicist; she, a pregnant palliative care nurse - who have flown into town to get married and see Celine Dion. They get sucked into their own Hangover-style whirlwind of debauchery with the help of a mysterious cowboy named Dick.
There are also a recovering British gambling addict, who’s in Sin City for a television convention, and his recovering alcoholic French girlfriend. You know where that’s going.
Spades moves at a ponderous pace, and it’s plot isn’t quite clicking yet, but the main problem is that the characters are still poorly defined. Despite spending 180 minutes watching them in 360 degrees, I didn’t come to care about any of them.
The women fare best. Nuria Garcia - a carry-over cast member from Lepage's nine-hour Lipsynch - excels as both a Mexican maid and a Spanish escort, while Sophie Martin injects life into her portrayal of a pair of francophones, even if both of her plots stumble off stage feeling incomplete.
The men - played by Sylvio Arriola, Martin Haberstroh, Robert Mori and Tony Guilfoyle - are more mysterious and hard to read.
As the former gambler who is perhaps the most prominent character, Guilfoyle keeps alternating between nervous whispers that are difficult to hear and distressed shouting that overwhelms his microphone; his frequent, circular telephone conversations with bookies and his wife quickly become tiresome. I didn’t understand what happens at the climax of his plotline, which leads us from a casino into the desert and then into David Lynch territory.
The Spades script is lovely in its observational moments but is hampered by obvious speeches about illegal immigrants and clunky ones about string theory. (Though, perhaps, they’re more appealing in their original languages - much of the show is translated in surtitles.)
As a theatre artist, Lepage frequently works out kinks and shapes shows in front of his audiences. His fans at international festivals don’t seem to mind, though he ran into trouble with the crowds at the Metropolitan Opera, who expected a Ring Cycle that wasn’t a work in progress. I've seen Lepage productions jump from this state to superb. There are pros and cons to the Toronto stop of Spades being so early in the process.
Playing Cards 1: Spades runs through Sunday (luminato.com).