Last month I saw Ex Machina/ Robert Lepage’s THE ANDERSEN PROJECT at Arts Emerson. I knew of Robert Lepage (aka I recognized his name) and was excited to see something different. I did not know anything going into the theater and as the lights dimmed my friend whispered to me “Oh god, It’s 2 hours without an intermission! That is a long time for a solo performance.” And I was struck with immediate fear. I wanted to bolt. I did not think I would be able to make it through 2 hours of one person telling a narrative about what I discovered was Hans Christian Andersen.
And then the screen that was onstage lit up, there was a brief speech projected as a man with long white blonde hair in a leather jacket had his back to the audience, followed by blasting french rap music as the actor, Yves Jacques, transformed into a graffiti artist tagging an image of Andersen while credits played on the other half of the screen. It was very obvious that this was not going to be two hours of narrative, and that I was not going to be bored. Projection was a huge part of the performance as Jacques portrayed an albino music producer from Canada, the director of a french opera company with a sex addiction, and Hans Christian Andersen.
I felt a distance from the play for the first thirty minutes or so as Jacques warmed into the performance. Maybe it was the Canadian accent that took me out, the overwhelming quality of the projections at times, or just a lack of commitment from the beginning. This was a performance that Jacques has been giving for six years… it must be challenging sometimes to stay committed!
A huge part of my experience watching this performance was my introduction to projections. I have taken a long time to write this because I haven’t been sure about my feeling on them as a whole, and needed to check out some other things. I have discovered that projections aren’t really my thing. They don’t get me going when I see them, and although I do think they are a really exciting art form, I am not personally engaged in them. The parts of the performance that I thought were most engaging involved little or no projection.
Jacques did an incredible section where he interacted with a dressed bodice that represented Andersen’s female companions. He stepped inside of the bodice, but in a transition that I’m not even sure was possible. His smooth movement as the bodice was smooth and swirling. It was a moment of theatrical magic. Maybe part of it was possible because of the projection, but a lot of it was magical because of the change in physicality from Andersen to the woman.
I do commend Jacques on that fully, his transformative quality from character to character. He changed physicality (and costume!) so quickly that I was sure there had to be some other actors on stage. Or that half of the time we were just watching a projection! And maybe that is my problem with this type of projection work. I feel like I am watching a screen for the entire performance, and as I said about Newyorkland if I wanted to do that I would have gone to the Regal Fens with my smuggled in Milky Way. I would like to believe that Jacques was always the person I saw in the screen set, but I have reasonable doubt.
One of the most moving moments was when Jacques tells the bedtime story about the man and his shadow. The shadow is an active character cast upon the background with a lamp Jacques holds. How he holds the lamp adjusts the size, position, and clarity of the shadow. I couldn’t look away for the entirety of this sequence, couldn’t blink. It was another pure moment devoid of any fancy tricks or magic. It was theatre magic, and beautiful storytelling.
I did not care so much for the Andersen story that was being told as a commission for the opera company. The story was about a fairy trapped in a tree that wished it was in Paris. This entire story was told in voice over with projections. It was beautiful, the colors, the quality of image, the movement of the leaves were all stunning. But I was not engaged. I wanted more of the shadow story, or the bodice. I found myself hungry for more of Jacques fantastic physical work.
Overall, I found this play a challenge, but one I was ready to face. I needed to form an opinion about the newer form of theatre using heavy amounts of projection, and I needed to have more of a back up then ‘I don’t like it.’ I now realize that when I don’t like the projection work, it is because the physical work is being compromised by it. The most engaging part of theatre these days is that it is a place where people can still communicate with language and movement instead of technology. I wouldn’t say I’m a purist by a long shot, but maybe this is just one thing I will take longer to jump on the boat about.