The scenic design of internationally acclaimed Québécois theater director Robert Lepage’s Needles and Opium at the Geary Theater is without argument amazing: a cube that twists, turns, and bends into streets, hotels, jazz clubs, recording studios, and even the star-strewn universe, all in an assortment of different perspectives. Lepage and his team of designers and technicians give the clunky, material nature of the theater a fluidity that approaches and at times surpasses film.
It’s a wild and florid display, demonstrating the endless possibilities of what you can do with static space. Yet the most stunning aspect of Needles and Opium is that after a while you forget that anything about the design is spectacular. The complexity of the staging just sort of floats away, and we’re left with a different kind of spectacle -- one of the imperfect human kind.
What emerges from and overtakes the dazzling stagecraft is the story of Robert, a heartbroken voice-over artist working a job in Paris. The poor man is so troubled that he can't even suffer a proper breakdown. Yet by the end of the evening, his refusal to fall to the depths and get ravaged feels not only wise, but also a decision of some philosophical depth.
There's an incredible moment when Robert resists a hypnotherapist's request to slip into his soul, and you have to agree with him: Why consciously court pain? After all, swirling just beneath his surface desperation is a series of reveries of the more famous and fantastic failures of the young jazz giant Miles Davis and the dashing novelist, poet, painter, filmmaker, and social butterfly Jean Cocteau, circa 1949. And those reveries are so astounding that it’s hard to tell whether they’re Robert’s, Lepage’s, or the spirit of love itself.
It's a shifty mix of souls and situations. In Paris, Davis finds temporary respite from America's racial hell, and falls -- literally, in Lepage’s staging -- into the arms of the beautiful French chanteuse Juliette Greco. The high-flying Cocteau, lazily addicted to opium, is haunted by the feeling that he has found and lost absolute perfection in the novelist and poet Raymond Radiguet, dead from typhoid fever at 20. And Robert, merely a searching soul, finds himself caught in a purgatory of disbelief: how could the man he loves reject him so thoroughly?
One might say that in Lepage’s world no one survives a failed romance, no matter how visionary your art or mundane your work might be. Like Orpheus (a favorite of Cocteau’s), we are destined to turn, look, and destroy what we adore. Even worse, we are consigned to remember it all, to never escape the idea of paradise and perfection that love inspires. And so you can’t help but think of the striking beauty of the scenes unfolding on stage as some kind of fleeting love, and Robert’s life as the aftermath -- a savage fall from grace and beauty, where even the simplest activities turn into inadvertent trips to hell.