The Luminato Festival (2009):

Directed by Robert Lepage
Written and performed by
Frédérike Bédard, Carlos Belda, Rebecca Blakenship, Lise Castonguay,
John Cobb, Muria Garcia, Marie Gignac, Sarah Kemp, Robert Lepage,
Rick Miller and Hans Piesbergen
Bluma Appel Theatre

(The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe)
Presented by Catalyst Theatre
Written, directed and composed by Jonathan Christenson
Winter Garden Theatre

Buddies in Bad Times Theatre

Music by Georges Bizet
Choreographed by Davide Bombana
Performed by the National Ballet of Canada
Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts

Reviewed by Robin Breon

As the third annual Luminato Festival (Toronto’s festival of the arts) comes to a close, the reviews are mixed. I certainly was not able to attend all of the events (particularly in the musical category) but the ones I saw are capsulated here.

The North American premiere of Lipsynch from Robert Lepage’s Ex Machina company was one of the big headliners of this year’s festival. The young woman in the short black stockings and alluring bustier had been staring out at us in print advertising for months prior to Luminato’s opening and so it was with some anticipation that the audience settled in for this nine hour exercise in mega-meta theatre that only Lepage can pull off. Always the question is: how well does he pull it off and was it worth the investment.

For me, it comes down to technical artistry versus dramaturgy; Lipsynch is strong in the former and weak in the latter. And investment has also become the operative word with Ex Machina. There is something happening within the world renowned company based in Quebec City and I think it comes with the “genius” appellation that, although not solicited by the founder, now plagues the work nonetheless.  Why would one choose to do a nine hour marathon? Because we have already done a six hour show? I don’t know.

There is no need to go into the details of the nine overlapping story lines that drive this epic except to say that the collectivist approach to the playwrighting has perhaps seen its day within Ex Machina when actors (plus Lepage) are also the writers. It all seems to be turned around the wrong way with actors writing material that contributes according to their needs allowing them to do takes according to their abilities. It would be interesting to see what would happen if the company restored the role of the playwright with someone on the order of a Tony Kushner and got down to business.

The signature Lepage stagecraft (here expertly assisted by set designer Jean Hazel and lighting designer  Étienne Boucher) was superb and in fact the only thing that saved the production. The audience ooohed and aahhhed every time the magic unfolded from the opening scenes which saw a young baby grow to a young man in the space of a few minutes, the unseen conveyer belt that gave the illusion of the London subway, to the creation of a virtual videographic cabaret right before our very eyes. But, not unlike the problem I had after seeing Lepage’s production of KA that he created for Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas, after all the jiggery-pokery, it left you kind of wondering why they thought the whole thing was worth doing in the first place. There seemed to be a commission occupying the space where a heart should be.

Nevermore (The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe), presented by Catalyst Theatre, and A Poe Cabaret: A Dream Within a Dream was a bit of overkill I thought by the artistic programming department of the Luminato festival that apparently wanted to honor the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allen Poe.

Nevermore was the better of the two, although the Sweeney Toddy approach to this bio-musical began to wear thin after awhile with a repetitive nursery rhyme score (by Jonathan Christenson) that was framed within some tight and well choreographed segments by Laura Krewski.

A Poe Cabaret featured the excellent musicianship of the Penderecki String Quartet but it was not enough to lift the lifeless reading by Tom Allen of Poe’s poem, The Raven, that precipitated an event seldom seen by Toronto theatre goers who are normally an extremely polite bunch of folks. They began to walk out. One by one, they quietly hunched over and scampered up the aisle to make their way to freedom – over a dozen by my count in an audience that the house manager told me numbered around 120 patrons at the Buddies in Bad Times space.

This was disappointing because I attended the performance with the hopes that the cabaret format might capture some of the great lyricism of Poe’s writing in the same way that the folksinger Phil Ochs set Poe’s less well known poem, The Bells, to music so simply and so beautifully.

Although this forum is not usually the space to review dance, I do want to commend the Luminato Festival for doing such a wonderful job with the two major dance companies that they programmed this year. The National Ballet of Canada’s gender bended production of Carmen dealt with this aging bull of a ballet in a number of creative ways that deserve all the praise it received while the Nederlands Dans Theatre gave audiences something truly to rave about. Well done.

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