Just how much the continued success of Robert Lepage's multimedia extravaganza "The Far Side of the Moon", which premiered in Quebec fives years ago this month, is dependent on award-winning stage and film actor Yves Jacques' bravura performance of the piece could be debated. One assumes that the author was effective in the original production, but Jacques won Montreal's best actor award for his dual role of Phillipe, the space-obsessed Ph.D candidate and his younger brother, Andre, a gay T.V. weatherman for the CBC--not to mention their Mother, briefly, and Phillipe's brain surgeon. Also essential to the show is puppeteer Eric LeBlanc, who manipulates child-sized figure in a space suit who floats in an out of the scenes, several mechanical models, and a large goldfish. There's also a hardworking crew in black who manipulate the complex set and myriad props in this highly choreographed show.
The set, which could be thought as a giant mechanical puppet, features a low ceiling with fluorescent lights on one side and mylar mirror on the other which can be raised, lowered, and flipped at will. The wall behind is a series of flat black sliding panels, one of which sports a gleaming chrome commercial washer, which metamorphoses into a clock, the hatch of a space craft, or a window of an airliner. The discover of such a washer abandoned in the trash began the exploration of the space race which led to this piece, though personal tragedy and relationships soon became more important. The panels open to reveal closets, hallways, and space. Two in the center often symbolize an elevator, but no ordinary lift but rather Tsilakovski's grand conception of one which would reach to the edge of the atmosphere and weightlessness.
Projected images credited to Jacques Collin and Veronique Couturier provide concrete references to the USA/USSR space race as well as effects such as a marvelous moving background in negative for a moped ride past the Plains of Abraham and other surprises. Laurie Anderson's soundscape, intended to suggest phases of the moon is often haunting but not exceptional. Indeed, the most effective musical moment is a weightless ballet at the very end performed to "The Moonlight Sonata", possibly a dirge for Mother's goldfish not coincidentally named Beethoven. This is a very complex show which can't quite disguise somewhat maudlin and occasionally indulgent storytelling.
The structure and content of "The Far Side of the Moon" is more characteristic of certain forms of the modern novel. It seems at first glance to be an attempt to stage a movie, using the intercutting of images in a very cinematic fashion. However, various intersections between the documentary content detailing the international competition to reach the moon and the lives of the two very different brothers do function dramatically. The visual connection between the miniature spaceman as a puppet and the single live actor is also a moment best achieved onstage, The single most theatrical element in the show, however, is Mother's ironing board, which Jacques manipulates to suggest exercise equipment, his moped, and examining table. Wearing a Soviet uniform, this clumsy item even stands in for the cosmonaut who performed the first space walk. Lepage's leaps of imagination are often spell-binding, but total effect is less than compelling.
The implications of the title are a case in point. "The Far Side of the Moon", the author reminds us, was first photographed by Soviet spacecraft and its features bear the names of various mostly Russian scientists and cultural icons, including Tsilakovski. The outer face of the moon, unseen from earth, shows more impact craters from eons of cosmic bombardment. The main character, Phillipe, whose thesis concerns the effect of scientific advances of society, is obsessed with escaping Earth's cradle to explore the cosmos, but is plainly earthbound by various personal problems. All these potent metaphors don't however add up to much drama, and the hero ends the evening two hours on very much as he began, dreaming of space. His circumstances are so detailed that it's hard to see this timid obsessive as representative of anyone more than himself as he dreams of floating in space.
It might be interesting to see a performance of the dramatic portions of this script surrounded by less technical extravagance. Perhaps the brother's story would be more compelling without the forced comparison between international competition and sibling rivalry. Their dramatic conflicts could be elevated above the mundane, or rewritten to be less cliched. Until then, the piece remains a triumph of theatrical bravura, a very glossy package for a collection of undigested metaphors, a mass of images for the audience to admire, puzzle about a bit, and let drift away like yesterday's astronauts.
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