Lepage’s Lipsynch

A nine-hour theater marathon of planned improvisation at the Wiener Festwochen

The multilayered epic Lipsynch celebrates the complexity and synchronicity of life | Photo: Érick Labbé

With Lipsynch, Robert Lepage has gifted audiences to this year’s Vienna Festival with another one of his powerful theatre marathons – his distinctive civilizational, if playful, tool. Lipsynch, a multilayered “dramedy” (an epic character story) is a re-enactment of what has been creatively constructed through hours of improvisational workshops since June 2005. The Quebecois artist presents the most unlikely characters that his internationally acclaimed ensemble keeps re-molding and stringing together. Beginning with an innocent act of Lepage simply doodling on an airplane, the Ensemble evolved frightful, banal tales into a magical mirror: Nine interlacing stories of nine interrelating characters that unfold over nine hours, to the tune and dance of high-tech engineering. Form is Lepage’s usual starting point; no content is pre-conceived. Via the airplane, he brings you to a familiar metaphorical space where he shares his understanding about theatrical arenas and thematic interest on shifting cultural identities. You enter a cabin, a stranger among strangers. Who are the persons next to you and what mental luggage does each one carry? Where’s that smell from – taking you towards what? Why are you annoyed or enthralled by that voice that has so much carrying power? How is it that there is a thunderous silence when nobody is talking to anyone else? At the chiaroscuro opening, Lepage’s anti-heroine is on a plane that had just taken off from Frankfurt bound for London. She’s carrying a baby whose crying attracts or distracts another passenger, the diva and voice of the earth, the one who stands up when the young mother suddenly convulses and mysteriously passes away. Through the commotion among the passengers and the dutifully poised stewardess, Ada lipsynchs, that is, incorporates a mother’s voice pacifying the baby she rocks in her arms. Indeed, Ada (Rebecca Blankenship) will continue to sing “this is your mother;” eventually she will adopt the child and give up her singing career. Within seconds, Lepage employs special effects to trick the audience into believing that Ada, is calling various people from her home, to track what happened to the baby she had cuddled close to her breast. In fact, it is all the same actor (Hans Piesbergen), who lipsynchs: first, in the guise of an airline staff who connects Ada to himself-turned airport manager who points her to his third persona as Thomas, the police officer who happens to be an opera aficionado. High-tech with simple structures are as remarkable as the actors – all transforming into varied identities with lightning speed and a convincing manifestation of the brain’s plasticity. The plane has become a train during which we see Ada holding a child that challenges the blinking eye as it metamorphoses, by quick twists and turns, into a boy and into the young hero, Jeremy (Rick Miller). Instantly, the train becomes a flat, with Ada giving a singing lesson to Jeremy. We feel his resistance and her pain as she is told, “Anyway… you’re not my real mother!” The narrative thread that builds and holds the characters together belongs to a woman (Nuria Garcia) who had been trafficked from her birthplace in Nicaragua when she was 15. She is a victim of a credible tale: an uncle agreed to sell her off  for $5,000 to a German couple ostensibly looking for a helper for the wheelchair-bound wife. There’s the promise of a good life in Europe in exchange for light domestic work. Instantly upon arriving in Hamburg, the Latina is raped and abused and whisked to work for the couple’s bordello. Such grisly trafficking is a human condition that many in the EU associate only with unlikely corners of its eastern and southern borders. A truer picture is revealed when Jeremy, graduating from a film school in California, visits Nicaragua to gather more clues about his deceased mother’s early years. The search acquires a rich tapestry as the process is woven into Jeremy’s project to film his mother’s story. The young actress (reincarnated by Garcia) he casts is an exact replica of the mother he knows from a photograph. The glances they exchange at first sight tingle with a palpable intense emotion, especially as she appears for the audition with her macho sugar daddy, who doggedly insists on accompanying her through location shooting. Travel scenarios reveal chance encounters showing how fates intertwine. On a train, Ada meets the young Jeremy snuggling a girl; then she bumps into Thomas, the opera-connoisseur police officer, who has become a brain surgeon. Later, we see Thomas in Ada’s flat preparing an evening meal: “Isn’t it time you moved along and looked for your own place?” she confronts him. Her flat has become too small for comfort, and Jeremy opts for a flight to California just as we see Thomas in Montreal operating on a jazz-actress, and falling for her. The story of that jazz-actress provides a key to Lipsynch. Recovering from a brain tumour operation, she discovers a silent super-8 movie with her deceased and estranged father talking to her as a child. She engages a lipreader and dubs male voices to recapture his voice. Her efforts are frustrated until her sister asks “what about trying it yourself?” Indeed, she discovers that she has been living a case of lipsynch: carrying her father’s voice all along. One tour de force multimedia scene is where an elderly woman, played by the Ensemble’s oldest member (John Cobb), incorporates the voice of a speech therapist. “She” is videotaped, a masterful process during which she gives an insight not only about lipsynching but also into what an Alzheimer’s patient goes through. Cobb’s brilliant acting reincarnates as a Scotland Yard officer who is rejected not only by his wife but also by other women he lures for a date. His job takes him to a pornstrip in order to find a woman suspected of having pushed her estranged brother under an onrushing London tube. Pretending to be a client, the sex-hungry officer takes the prostitute on a car-ride “to just talk,” which becomes an endearing statement about how the human spirit bubbles up when two souls, meeting on an equal basis, exchange vulnerabilities that expose their momentary truths. With Lipsynch, Lepage reveals his love for theatre as a travesty. French and Latin influences for the visual and musical mix with his fascination with the Far East – with Kabuki and its transgender aesthetic. But Lipsynch has also evolved from working with a group of Quebec-based psychologists who believe that humans reflect the father in the voice, mother in speech, and individual identity in the word. A Lepage production is never really finished. The improvisational and constant experimental approach keeps the actors on their toes even after Premier night. The Ensemble teases the audience, leaving them the space to continue their own engagement with the piece.

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