High-Tech, Low-Key Dramas

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

An old theater quip states, "nothing is as old-fashioned as the avant-garde." This may often be the case, but this week Los Angeles saw two productions that were "old-fashioned" and "avant-garde" in the best senses of both expressions.

These two productions were directed by men who were both born in 1957 and made their name as enfant terrribles in the 1980's: Peter Sellars and Robert Lepage.

Sellars' brought his production of Kafka Fragments to town on Tuesday. This song cycle by Gyorgy Kurtag was not intended to be staged, and yet Sellars' interpretation felt very much at home on the boards of Disney Hall. The show, which featured one singer (a haunting Dawn Upshaw) and one violinist (the expert Geoff Nuttall) was so simple and yet the emotions it elicited were so profound. Sellars takes Kafka's alienation and brings it home—literally. Upshaw performs household tasks like ironing and cleaning while singing Kurtag's spiky, angst-filled music. It could have so easily been mawkish but thanks to Sellars' clean, unaffected blocking, these shards of Kafka cut deep.

Canadian director Robert Lepage is in town this week, in person with his video chamber drama The Blue Dragon and with the worldwide broadcast of his staged version of Hector Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust. Both productions, created almost a decade apart, share a similar visual aesthetic: a two tiered, metal set, separated into quadrants which can be used as individual video screens or small rooms for live action. It can also be used as a full screen for projected images or simply, a traditional proscenium stage. This production of Faust (first staged in 1999 and restaged this season for the Metropolitan Opera and its HD broadcast series) is more ambitious and bravura in its visuals. Lepage conjures gothic cathedrals, an underwater ballet of sorts, even a horse race through the heavens — it's all impressive in a "wow, how do they do that" fashion, but it never brought me closer to the human drama at the center of the Faust legend. Part of this is due to the fact that Lepage's pyrotechnics have to battle Berlioz's 1846 score, which like Kafka Fragments, was never really meant to be staged. The music was meant to say it all, and 162 years later, despite Lepage's best efforts, it still does.

More successful dramatically, is Lepage's most recent stage creation, The Blue Dragon. The Blue Dragon, which opened last week at UCLA Live! also features video wizardry, but it's a digital beast with a human heart beating inside. Lepage himself plays the male lead in this love triangle — and these performances mark his LA stage debut. He's a very low key presence but commanding nonetheless — Lepage's acting style recalls the adage about mafia men who whisper because real power means people have to lean in and pay attention. His two cast-mates, Marie Maichaud (who co-wrote the story) and Tai Wei Foo (who choreographed the dances) are equally relaxed, captivating and real.

The Blue Dragon of the title refers to a tattoo Lepage's character (a Canadian expat living in China) had etched onto his back. Throughout the piece, I kept waiting for this simple story of three lives that intersect to get arty, highfallutin, and abstract. It doesn't, Lepage's stagecraft does often dazzles, but mostly the technology serves the narrative, which ultimately feels like a well-told Paul Auster or Paul Theroux short story. Even the trick ending, which seems like something out of Pirandello, feels earned. At the end of its cool two hours, The Blue Dragon recalled another old theater saw: the best artists don't try to be different, as simply being good is usually different enough.

Robert Lepage's The Blue Dragon runs though Saturday night at UCLA's Freud Playhouse, the live Met broadcast of his Damnation of Faust can be seen at cinemas all over Southern California at 10 o'clock Saturday morning.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.