Read my Lipsynch: Lepage at BAM

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lipysnchSound and image have always kept close company. It isn't hard to imagine the Neanderthals who daubed Lascaux with plant dye unveiling their paintings of stags and bears with helpful grunts and roars. Silent films were never silent as long as the piano played. For a piece that is ostensibly about the human voice as signifier of memory, identity and shared humanity, Robert Lepage's three-part Lipsynch is intensely visual. No surprise there: The Qubec-City--based director has been crafting potent imagery for decades, running the gamut of stage technology from the high end (video compositing) to the low (beguiling the eye with mirrors and shadow effects). Lipsynch, which comprises three plays, nine acts, nine actors, what seems like double that number of stagehands, and which has a combined running time of about eight and a half hours, is an astonishing day at the theater. It's also being performed in separate installments through this Sunday. I attended the daylong marathon presentation on Saturday and wanted to share some thoughts on this evocative feast for ear, eye and heart. Helen Shaw previewed the piece here, and I posted a Lepage slide show here. After the jump, my thoughts on the show itself.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!

From the first tableau (an airplane cabin in cutaway profile, where a mother has died in her seat and another female passenger discovers her baby) to the last (a moving pita composition with the dead mother, her now-grown baby and his adoptive mother), Lipsynch covers much ground—thematically, temporally and geographically. In the end, to me, it is a powerful piece about surrogacy, and how we graft people onto our personal narratives. In Lepage & Co.'s sprawling international narrative, lip-synching functions as a metaphor for vicarious, filtered relations among the living and the dead, biological and adoptive family members, and people divided by language.

It is also, in its final sections, a tragedy of contamination—cultural and sexual. One culminating image should sear itself into your mind. A young woman forced into prostitution tells her story; as she relates a litany of violation, there's a video projection on her body. She wears a thin white dress, and the image splashed across her is that of a man's naked torso. (We see the topless actor on the other side of the stage, facing a video camera, which is transmitting the live projection onto the woman.) The image on the woman's body is not her own, obviously. Hands in the projection rove over the torso, stroking, striking, pinching. The female actress, talking about life as a sex worker, is effectively turned into a screen upon which a man projects his masturbatory fantasies. She "lip-synchs" an illusory desire for him. He "lip-synchs" his connection to her. Violation without communication.

That powerful image arrives at the end. But the first act of this epic piece, "Ada," opens with a long scene in an airplane cabin. The titular character (the sometimes-stiff but always earnest Rebecca Blankenship) is an opera singer who discovers that one of her fellow passengers has died in her seat. A baby wails next to the corpse. The dead mother, we will learn about eight hours later, is the Nicaraguan-born Lupe (Nuria Garcia), a young woman sold into sex slavery by her uncle, transported to Germany, where she is forced into prostitution and drugs. Ada alerts the airplane crew about the dead woman and her baby, and frets about the infant's welfare afterward. A few scenes later, we see that she has adopted the baby, who in a series of witty theatrical jump cuts aboard a subway car, grows up into disaffected teen Jeremy (Rick Miller). Jeremy is a typical adopted son in some ways. He's estranged from the mother who raised him, curious about his birth mother (Ada tells him nothing) and afflicted with a rootless sense of never belonging. The emotionally charged triad of birth mother, adoptive mother and adoptive son forms the central, primal relationship of the work.

Of course, to fill three plays and nine hours, Lepage introduces many more characters and plot lines, all of them tangentially or directly related to Ada, Lupe and Jeremy. There are too many to go into here, but they include a neurosurgeon who becomes Ada's lover (Hans Piesbergen); one of his patients, a jazz singer (Frdrike Bdard) who wants to reconstruct her dead father's voice; and an older Scots police officer (John Cobb) who investigates the possible murder of a BBC radio announcer. Each act of the three plays is named after the focal character, and Lepage doesn't cut among them. It's a sequential and linear progression that covers about 30 years.

Is Lipsynch too attenuated? Could it have been shorter and thereby packed more dramatic punch? Other critics have suggested this, and I can see the point. The piece could have been two parts, or even a single three-hour piece with judicious cuts made throughout. At the same time, the execution is first-rate and I wasn't really bored for a second. Yes, the ensemble is what you'd call "uneven," but that's part of the charm. The dozens of locations are rendered through wheeled modular units that create an amazing array of interiors. And the story, while parceled out slowly, is generally gripping. Loath as I am to make comparisons among media, you could say Lipsynch is like a really unique and artful TV miniseries. It has the branching, interconnected narratives of a good miniseries, a long chronological sweep and a large cast of vivid, varied characters. If the visual magic could somehow be transferred to the small screen, Lipsynch might have made for brilliant television. Not to diminish its theatrical impact: It is still great, memorable theater and you're bound to tear up at several moments. (Lepage is the kind of experimental director who isn't afraid of humanism or plucking at your heartstrings.)

If you've read to the end of this unusually long post, I thank you. Now get your tickets! My contact at BAM says that there are still tickets available for the three successive weeknights as well as next weekend (although fewer for the weekend marathons). Also, BAM has "broken up" the three weeknights; you can now attend them separately at a lower cost. And there are student rush tickets. Students with ID (age 25 and under) can buy a $10 ticket (they need to show up no earlier than 90 minutes before curtain).

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