Robert Lepage's 2005 solo show The Andersen Project is about creative juices - how they flow or don't, and who cleans the splatter up afterwards.
In a worth-the-wait Toronto engagement at Canadian Stage, brilliant bilingual actor Yves Jacques, Lepage's designated sub for his one-man shows, plays all three main characters: Frédéric, an albino rock lyricist from Montreal who heads to Paris to write the libretto for a children's opera based on a Hans Christian Andersen story; Arnaud, the opera company's fast-talking Parisian administrator whose personal life is unravelling due to his sexual obsessions; and Rashid, a Moroccan janitor who has the unsavoury job of mopping up after clients at a peep show located underneath the apartment Frédéric is subletting.
As in so much of Lepage's dramatic oeuvre, The Andersen Project centres around a Québécois who journeys out of his home province and makes unexpected discoveries. But this may be his most intricately woven narrative, with everything resonating against everything else in marvellous and expected ways.
From Frédéric's misguided attempt to find artistic validation outside of Canada, to Arnaud's unsatisfying ejaculations in the peep-show booths, to Rashid's furtive tagging of Metro station platforms with graffiti - each character is frustrated while trying to make his mark. (Only the dog Frédéric is babysitting has complete success in this department, making friends with half the trees in Paris during the course of the play.)
All of this connects to Andersen's own bizarre biography and his tales where, Frédéric explains, "humans who have longings and desires die, and animals have lots of children and live happily ever after."
The Andersen tale being adapted by Frédéric echoes his own plotline. The Dryad is about a tree nymph who sacrifices a long life in the woods for a single day in Paris. (The culturally nationalistic subtext makes this an intriguing programming choice for Matthew Jocelyn, the new artistic director of Canadian Stage, who recently repatriated after spending 30 years in France.)
Lepage keeps things from getting too heady by injecting humour into his character's lonely longings. Arnaud's hilarious introductory monologue satirizes French society and the politics of international co-productions in a single breathless speech, while a later visit by Frédéric to a pet therapist goes in obvious directions, but is nonetheless very funny. There's also a wonderfully mad sequence where Frédéric takes one of the dog's pills on a whim and ends up dancing in a German club to a Euro-remix of Sarah McLachlan's Sweet Surrender.
My only quibbles come from the way Lepage has altered the play from its French-language premiere. A few jokes that are lost in translation should simply have been excised, while elsewhere the show is updated for 2010 but only inconsistently. (One of the plot points no longer works due to the recession, so it might better have been better kept in 2005.)
As for the decision to have francophone Frédéric speak in English, while Arnaud speaks in French (with subtitles), I understand it was a necessary compromise to accessibility. Unfortunately, Arnaud's opening speech becomes nearly incomprehensible spoken by Jacques in mile-a-minute French-accented English.
But the words are only part of the equation with Lepage, of course. His unparalleled visual ingenuity is what lifts this above and beyond, as in magical moments when Jacques walks behind a tree and emerges as another character, or leaps up and lands on what had looked like a flat wall. And, as with many of his works, Lepage creates hypnotizing scenes using good-old fashioned theatrical techniques, as when Arnaud tells Andersen's The Shadow as a bedtime story to his daughter using a desk lamp and the shadow puppetry. The Andersen Project is another real accomplishment from one of the world's top stage creators.
The Andersen Project
- Written and directed by Robert Lepage
- Starring Yves Jacques
- An Ex Machina production presented by Canadian Stage
- At the St. Lawrence Centre in Toronto
The Andersen Project runs in Toronto until Oct. 30.