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.
In an awful series of telephone mishaps, Robert attempts to leave a message for his ex-lover in New York, only to be thwarted by an operator with a shaky sense of numbers and time. A few scenes later, that same lover can’t reach him because Robert’s complaining to the hotel receptionist about the sexual escapades of the couple next door. When they finally talk, Robert becomes so frustrated that he repeatedly screams for him to hang up until he does.
These are riveting scenes, and each time we’re just watching a man sitting on a bed in a sparse hotel room talking on a phone. The simplicity and directness of the emotion calls into question the baroque theatrics of the staging. It's as if the flawlessness of the design were a monster in need of slaying, an overwhelming force unconcerned with real human needs. You can feel Lepage taking on and questioning the very conception of the work that he’s so lovingly laid before us.
Near the end, Robert watches Davis create the soundtrack for Louis Malle’s 1958 movie Elevator to the Gallows, and he is taken with the notion that Davis is creating the music in the moment, and that if he had played the next day, “the music would have been different.” The idea catches Robert off guard. He asks Malle, “If one isn’t Miles Davis or Jean Cocteau, how does one transform such intense pain?” It’s a question that haunts every moment of Needles and Opium, and it is never answered.
We can only remember Robert's earlier attempt to say the simple phrase, “the love of his life,” and that he can’t quite do it. He has not transformed his pain into art. There is no moment of transcendence. Nothing of lasting value comes from the hurt that overcomes him at that moment. The line isn't even about him, and yet it overturns everything for him, the world and how he understands love. In a stage production that seems to be a celebration of sheer over-the-top artistry, the most spectacular moment is one man’s inability to fully say one simple line.
'Needles and Opium' runs through Sunday, Apr. 23, at the Geary Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information click here.