Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Theatre: Blue Dragon at Royal Alexandra

The Mirvish subscription series usually contains an eclectic set shows ranging from crowd-pleasing musicals to dramas to comedies, from traveling shows that previously played elsewhere, to up and coming shows that are previewing in Toronto en-route to Broadway or London.  Every once in a while, David Mirvish likes to throw in a obscure, artistically challenging or downright weird show that only appeals to a limited audience - Slava's Snowshow with a bunch of pantomiming Russian clowns, Henry IV and V with all the characters dressed as 1920s mobsters so you can't tell who is playing which part, or the fully subtitled Korean opera "The Last Empress", just to name a few.   So when I saw the advertisement for Robert LePage's new play "The Blue Dragon", which would be performed in French and Mandarin as well as heavily accented English, featuring Chinese Opera dancing, I thought "here we go again!"

Instead I was pleasantly surprised to watch a touchingly humourous drama about Pierre, an ex-Quebecois art dealer in his 50s, running a gallery in Shanghai's Moganshan art district.  Pierre juggles his rekindled friendship with a former Canadian lover Claire, who is in China to adopt a baby and his current relationship with a young, talented Chinese artist named Xiao Ling, who captures candid photos of herself during raw, emotional moments and uses them to create large self portraits.

Pierre and Claire converse in sur-titled French while Pierre and Xiao Ling talk to each other in (surprisingly fluent sounding on Pierre's part) Mandarin.  I did not mind reading the translations at all and ironically found it most difficult to understand when Claire and Xiao Ling spoke to each other in heavily accented English.  These various languages added authenticity to the interactions - in contrast to some plays or movies where foreigners sound inexplicably American or British.

  Chinese customs, language and culture are highlighted throughout the show to ground the locale of the story.  The aforementioned Chinese Opera scene with the white-faced ribbon dancer was thrown in more for mood and effect and did not really contribute to the plot.  Similarly a quick scene showing Pierre cycling through Shanghai is inter-cut with what seems like an excerpt from the famous revolutionary dance "The East is Red".   The actress who plays Xiao Ling performs all the dance numbers.  There is a quick movie clip of ancient Chinese warlords at battle that turns into a commercial for Kentucky Fried Chicken, showing how China is rapidly changing and becoming more capitalistic.

 At the beginning of the play, Pierre writes some Chinese calligraphy on a tableau and his resultant strokes are reflected on the screen.  He describes how the symbol for "One" ( a horizontal line) is the starting point for most words and how a few more strokes can form a woman or stone or tree, and how multiple tree symbols becomes forest.   He philosophizes about his own name "Pierre Lamontagne", whose French translations are the words Stone and Mountain.  He describes himself as "a rolling stone that gathers no moss", never staying in one place long enough to be tied down.  His surname is a reflection of his father's character - sturdy, strong, but stern, unmovable, unemotional.

This one act play has a compelling story line that slowly flushes out each character's back story and hidden motivations.  Each one is flawed but with enough redeeming qualities to make you care and root for him.  There are no cartoon heros or villians in this story, just realistically portrayed people trying to get by.

But what takes it to the next level of artistry is the amazing set design and staging.  Through innovative use of lighting, video and minature models, you are transported to the bustling Shanghai airport, travelling on an airplane through a lightening storm, riding on a high speed train through the Chinese valleys, cycling along the Bund while watching the boats in the habour and the skyline of Pudong in the background.   As Pierre describes meeting Xiao Ling at a tattoo parlour where she etched the Blue Dragon tattoo on his back, a large video image of the Dragon is superimposed on the screen over his body and then the representation of a huge tattoo needle appears to continue etching the image.

Pierre's two-tiered loft with the sparse furniture and the pull-up trap door to access the second floor is influenced by Herge's Tintin and the Blue Lotus.  The Dragon motif on the wall with the blue and white urn beside is a close replica of the cover of that book - the only thing missing is Tintin peeking out of the urn.  Robert LePage has indicated in an interview that his play was inspired by this Tintin comics.

At one point, Xiao Ling tells Claire an ancient fable about the three gorges of the Yangtze River and how, depending on which gorge is chosen, a different fate will occur.  Later, Xiao Ling symbolically and Claire literally tosses something into the water, as if to test their fates.  The play ends in a very clever and delightful manner by referencing this story and playing out three possible outcomes for our protagonists.

 I thoroughly enjoyed watching this play despite coming into it with wary skepticism.  It made it extra special to watch for Rich and I, since we had just travelled to Shanghai recently.  We visited the depicted locations such as the Moganshan artist commune (nicknamed "M50") and the harbour by the Bund so there was a sense of familiarity and recognition as each scene played out.