I had the opportunity to watch The Andersen Project by Robert Lepage at The Cutler Majestic last month with two friends of mine. Going into the production none of us knew what to expect from the performance. However we knew that this would be a 2 hours and 15 minute one-man show, which meant that we could either have an exciting experience at the theatre, or we would want to gouge our eyes out. So before the show started we made a pact that if the show was painful, we’d get up and leave. The lights dimmed, and the action started.
I am not even sure how I can accurately describe what those opening moments were for me. All I know is that my jaw hit the floor, my eyes widened, and I was a 6 year-old girl again. The show began with a graffiti artist tagging a wall, which brought forth a third dimension created by him jumping into a screen. I don’t have the right words to describe the magic that was created.
The Andersen Project was inspired by the diaries of children fairytale writer, Hans Christian Andersen. Lepage delves into the mysteries of a writer whose conflicted psychology plays out in his lesser known tales written more for auto-therapy than for the delight of children. In this one-man show, actor Yves Jacques plays a Canadian rock-‘n-roll writer who is unexpectedly commissioned by the Opéra Garnier in Paris to write a libretto for a children’s opera. Arriving in Paris, he discovers that his living quarters are on the last floor of a building that is also home to a peep show in the city’s red light district. Yves transforms into various different characters, and together Lepage explores the resonances between the characters. The production is a theatrical story telling, in which multimedia serve as other actors on stage. Everything from the lights, to the projection made this performance feel like a rock concert. The piece had a definite European sensibility to it that comes in its rapid changes rhythms, which aided the humor in the story telling.
As a disclaimer projection theatre is something that I am often extremely hesitant about, because I believe that the beauty of theatre lies in transformation. However The Andersen Project found a way to write a story where the actor and the design were able to create a hyper-transformative space. The design elements served as a scene partner and help extend the audience’s imagination to better understand and access the world being created. Somehow the production managed to be both outrageous, and incredibly intimate.
Perhaps my favorite moment of the production was when Yves explores Andersen’s love life. Suddenly a female manikin comes out on a track and Yves uses her to share about Hans’ experiences with love, and they begin to dance. The dance begins as a delicate courtship, and then progresses into a disturbing ripping off of the manikin’s clothes. This action illuminated the sexual repression and violence in Hans Christian Andersen’s life in a beautiful way. I was intrigued by the use of light, not necessarily on a large scale, but during the more intimate moments. There was a moment where a shadow dance was created by the use of a light fixture, when Arnaud was tucking his daughter into bed. As an artist I enjoy working with singular light sources, and exploring all the interesting things you can find through expanding its use.
After watching The Andersen Project, I spent a long time trying to figure out what the central message was of the piece. Then I recalled one of the final images of the piece where Yves Jacques stands in front of an audience, and declares that “theatre is an art form that takes us back to our caveman days when our ancestors stood around fires to tell stories and employed the use of shadows to convey other characters and other voices.” This moment was extremely moving because for the past 2 hours we’ve watched a montage of scenic surprise, and at the core of it was story telling. Simple story telling like the cavemen practiced, yet Lepage used our modern tools to tell a deeply mythological story.
Theatre is moving in an epic direction. In a very Greek sense audiences are seeking a form of theatre that incites them viscerally, and The Andersen Project does just that. The production team seems to be ahead of the curve with the creation of this piece. I absolutely see this form of theatre becoming popular within the next few years.
Although, I must admit that there were times when my senses were accosted by sound and light, but I think that could be expected for an audience member who is new to this multimedia faceted kind of performance. If I had one qualm with the production, it would be that the performance could have been shorter. There was an element that felt like the design was running an Olympic marathon, and had to continue to top it’s previous record. Otherwise the piece was thoroughly enjoyable.