Theater archives

Wright’s Waxy Buildup


In one of the many cloyingly clever moments in Robert Lepage’s investigation of mysticism and architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright’s assistants show the president of Johnson Wax the master’s plans for the company’s new headquarters in Wisconsin. Johnson has been invited to dinner at Wright’s, and after the meal the apprentices rearrange the table, setting plates atop inverted wine glasses: Voilà! A model of the famed building of columns and mushroom-tops. The audience gets to have its first of a dozen self-congratulatory laughs of recognition, and Lepage is quick to stroke his spectators again. “Where’s the form, the shape, the box?” the corporate exec wants to know. “We’ve deconstructed it, Mr. Johnson,” answers an apprentice.

Knowing titters chime through the house again as Lepage lets us gloat over how much more sophisticated we are than the man who extols mosquito repellent and window cleanser as great advances of humankind; we also understand that Lepage is describing his own postmod work, which we are enjoying oh, so much. And besides, it’s oh, so profound. How can we be sure? The piece constantly announces its own Deep Significance.

The two-and-a-half-hour performance traces the connections between Wright and the mystic G.I. Gurdjieff, whom Wright’s wife, Olgivanna, had brought to the architect’s Wisconsin commune, thinking that Gurdjieff’s movement exercises would help the apprentices free their imaginations. But conflicts soon develop between the demands of each guru as Olgivanna keeps the apprentices practicing their tai-chi-like routines instead of preparing their models. She, in fact, turns out to be more viciously controlling than the two egomaniacal geniuses she serves, if only because the men’s narcissism prevents them from even noticing the damage they do to their disciples, until it is much too late.

Lepage makes a literal joke of this process in a long scene in which a group of Gurdjieff’s devotees imitate his every movement and utterance, even his furious denunciations of them. While the scene illustrates the extent to which followers lose themselves in their charismatic leaders, Geometry of Miracles never really explores how or why this happens. Instead, Lepage makes simple, superficial comparisons. Gurdjieff first appears on stage popping out of Lenin’s tomb. The scene is, of course, beautiful: The actors arrange themselves in a socialist-realist tableau of triumph, heads and arms pointing skyward in a sequence of biomechanical-like movements. But Gurdjieff equals Lenin? Creepy as Gurdjieff was, on any level that’s absurd.

Playing the loopy mystic with a spry,applause-milking devilishness, Rodrigue Proteau gives Geometry its most sustained levity. He doubles as Beelzebub, to whom Gurdjieff likened himself; with little horns protruding from his forehead, he stalks the stage on tiptoe, grumbling with a sonorous growl.

The Wright character—played by marble-mouthed Tony Guilfoyle—is more aloof, drawing his audience sympathies through his unflappable, single-minded self-certainty. He, too, is paralleled by easy, pretty images: projections of stars and geometric diagrams on a scrim. Meanwhile, most of his lines are grand pronouncements on the nature of creativity or the meaning of god. So one comes away from the performance learning nothing about Wright—other than that he was brilliant and difficult.

Geometry is filled with Lepage’s trademark, lovely abstractions—Johnson tap-dances on a table to dictate a letter while his secretary mimes typing, Gurdjieff responds to a teenaged girl’s request that he hypnotize her by twirling her overhead in a suggestive dance of sexual violence. But the central mystery Lepage poses is how a master of specific, economic images can let them add up into such a lethargic whole.