Theater: Needles and Spins

The spectacle of ‘Needles and Opium’ lacks a human touch

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In ‘Needles and Opium,’ now playing at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater, the lives of Parisian filmmaker Jean Cocteau and American jazz legend Miles Davis collide. Photo by Tristram Kenton and Nicola-Frank Vachon.

By Charles Brousse

There was a time, not so long ago, when I would attend every iteration of Cirque du Soleil that came to San Francisco. The productions were awe-inspiring, a marvel of colorful costumes, evocative music, unbelievable acrobatic skills and, above all, technological wonders that made the whole thing seem magical.

Entranced as I was, however, I became increasingly aware that something was missing. That “something” was human content, a narrative featuring real people that would bind the spectacle together and give it warmth instead of just being an eye and ear-pleasing show—a gaudy performance wrapping around a void. When that didn’t happen, I stopped going.

I mention this because Robert Lepage, the renowned French Canadian writer/director, whose Needles and Opium occupies A.C.T.’s Geary Theater stage (or at least a portion thereof) for one more weekend, has a resume that includes major roles in developing two of Cirque’s past projects (2004 and 2010) and echoes of that experience are evident throughout the current production. Instead of a grand-scale, multi-event circus, however, he has compressed his playing area into a smallish three-sided cube, standing upright on one corner to provide sloping walls, and a floor and ceiling that change orientation as it rotates. Within that small chamber, Lepage and his expert crew from his multidisciplinary production company, Ex Machina, are absolute masters.

Windows and doors appear and disappear. Lights, sound and projections shift to allow the play’s two actors, attached to safety lines, to exist in two different worlds, Paris and New York, with an occasional detour into the starry cosmos, where they are reminiscent of astronauts engaging in spacewalks. Whether intended as an opium dream, an excursion into virtual reality, or simply a demonstration of what technology can now do, the effect is spellbinding.

At least it was for awhile. About midway through the 90-minute, no-intermission performance I began to have the same uncomfortable feeling that I had with Cirque du Soleil. Was there something human underneath the razzle dazzle? Actually, Lepage does supply a storyline of sorts, but it’s so anemic and cliche ridden that it might have been better to present the show as an abstract performance piece.

Although the title suggests otherwise, Needles and Opium has relatively little to do with either one, or addiction in general. The idea came to Lepage when he stayed in Paris at the Hotel Louisiane in late 1989, researching famed jazz trumpeter Miles Davis for a documentary film and trying to overcome  depression over a  romantic breakup. After hearing that the room he occupied was where Davis and French singer/actress Juliette Greco had a brief but torrid love affair 40 years earlier, which ended unhappily, Lepage also learned that about the same time the brilliant, multi-talented French artist, writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau journeyed to New York to help him overcome the sorrow he still felt after the sudden death of his young lover a few years earlier. Since Cocteau and Davis never met, those events have no relationship beyond the fact that the two chose to visit each other’s country at roughly the same time, and both turned to opium to relieve their respective heartbreak.

True to his aesthetic, Lepage doesn’t bother to flesh out the foregoing scenario and the actors seem to have been chosen more for their ability to perform on all angles of a moving

“stage” than to convey any impression of being real people. A silent Wellesley Robertson III mainly strikes poses with his trumpet as Davis. Olivier Normand slips and slides around the rotating cube while delivering lines from Cocteau’s “Letter,” or extolling the virtues of opium. Normand is also Lepage’s despairing surrogate (here named “Robert”) who bookends the show and eventually floats off into the starlit heavens like a 21st century Mary Poppins.

In a program note, Shannon Stockwell sums up the challenge for viewers rather nicely. “For LePage,” she writes, “the spectacle is the substance. Form is content. Content is form.”

As the old saying goes, “You pays yer money and you takes yer choice.”

NOW PLAYING: Needles and Opium runs through Sunday, April 23 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco; 415/749.2228; act-sf.org.

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