Few stage directors work with fluid imagery on the scale of Robert Lepage. He fills his stage with modular set units wheeling and turning. Screens slide. Projections dance on walls. A curtain is drawn and suddenly a couple of platforms transform into an enormous jet plane hurtling through the night. Later, the units slide together to form a car on the London Tube, a pensioner’s kitchen, a Central American bungalow, even a grave.
Lepage—a Quebec-based writer, director, performer, and filmmaker—combines intellectually ambitious themes with these rigorously composed visual tableaux, with varying success. Since founding his company Ex Machina in 1993, he has made large, long works contemplating the late 20th-century’s cataclysms (The Seven Streams of the River Ota, 1996); Frank Lloyd Wright’s intellectual heritage (Geometry of Miracles, 1999), and the U.S.-Soviet space race (Far Side of the Moon, 2000), among other epics. He also works in opera and recently opened a massive outdoor projection show in Quebec City centered on grain elevators (The Image Mill).
Lepage and his design team excel when the setting expresses a state of mind rooted exactly in the drama of a particular act or scene—especially when it conveys an illusion, a hallucination, a dream, or a desire. A haunting example comes near the end of Lipsynch, in a little bookstore and apartment in snowy Quebec City, with the projected flakes and visiting ghosts conjuring a sense of the schizophrenic Marie’s isolation and aspiration for new beginnings. (It’s perhaps the finest act, with one scene performed soundlessly, and then, with set reversed front to back, staged again with words—making us perceive differently, and more keenly.) But in general, Lepage’s work needs—though doesn’t often find—an equally taut imaginative dramatic structure to fulfill these evocative stage pictures. When that structure isn’t founds, a long act or scene has the look and feel of company-created scenework overextended: It can be aimless, with dialogue meandering toward the banal.
Lipsynch—presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival—offers an eight and a half-hour immersion in Lepage’s sprawling aesthetic. (If you see the whole production in one sitting, there are four intermissions and a dinner break—or you can see it in three installments on separate evenings.) Written (with Lepage and dramaturg Marie Gignac) by its multilingual, international company of actors, Lipsynch follows nine characters with intersecting lives over a 70-year span, spinning backwards and forwards from an incident on an intercontinental Lufthansa flight, with acts set in London, war-time Vienna, pre-revolutionary Nicaragua, and Quebec City. Each segment follows the thread of one character’s life narrative, but faces and names familiar from other segments make appearances.
Lipsynch’s ostensible theme—often announced but little investigated—is the human voice, which includes speech and language. An adult daughter who longs to hear her late father’s voice hires a lip-reader to watch old 8-millimeter home movies to tell her what he’s saying. A BBC newsreader with an implausibly plummy accent finds his unposh past unmasked and his new identity unraveled. An adolescent raised by an opera singer leaves home to find his true voice. A jazz singer is told she might lose her capacity for speech. In episodes like these, Lepage intends to show us a mosaic of human struggles for identity, to assemble a composite portrait of contemporary society voicing over and dubbing out our primal emotional needs. Lepage wants to make us aware of how we control and doctor the sounds surrounding us to cover up the voices of those in genuine need. That fascination leads him to set many scenes in recording studios, where characters dub films, make voiceovers, and arrange laugh tracks while coping with death, disease, depression, and desire.
Most of the time, the company can’t resist informing us in the dialogue when a theme is being expressed, but when Lepage abandons this unscripted naturalism and plays with abstraction, the drama becomes far more resonant. (Sometimes this happens through music. There’s a lovely sequence in Part 1 in which a son and mother voice their love as a moving jet plane pulls them apart, and both the jazz and opera singer characters have striking arias of despair.)
Despite the ingenuity of the module sets and atmospheric back-lighting, and despite the hardworking (but uneven) company’s epic ambitions, Lipsynch is ultimately limited by Lepage’s imagination. The stage images can be suggestive, but too many of the scenes taking place in them are pedestrian, dwelling in meandering and unsubtle dialogue, occasionally even falling back on melodrama. With a few scenes excepted, it’s like watching improvisations in a pretty diorama. When Lepage explains away character psychologies and themes, there’s no work left for the spectator. Lepage may be an intensely visual artist, but his use of the stage is surprisingly literal. He fixes our gaze on controlled visual details, like a filmmaker, but the theater calls for more metaphorical depths, for meanings left unresolved for the spectator to complete with their intelligence. At the end of this narrative marathon, that too has been voiced over.