Dragon all smoke, but no fire in the belly

Mirvish’s latest production falls short under weight of expectations

When it comes to theatrical directors in recent memory, there are few who have received greater accolades in Canada and around the world than Quebec’s Robert LePage. Still in his early 50s, he has acted (in the wonderful Jesus of Montreal), directed everywhere from Sweden to New York’s Metropolitan Opera and written highly praised works of theatre. The Cirque du Soleil production he directed, Totem, was one of the most entertaining and visually stunning productions I’ve seen. So why on earth was I so deeply bored by one of his latest creations, The Blue Dragon, now running at the Royal Alexandra Theatre through Feb. 19?

LePage is nothing if not visually creative: throughout the 90-minute production, there are moments of great beauty, surprise and even profound pleasure. We see a French-Canadian artist explain the intricacies of Chinese calligraphy, painting letters on the floor in front of him, which appear at the same moment in images a hundred times in size on screens behind him. A two-level platform becomes the inside of a jet plane, then a restaurant, a train station and the skyline of Shanghai. Three performers speak in Chinese, French and English, with subtitles flashed across the centre of a screen behind their movements. Now and then, we see gorgeous dances, which echo the emotions of various performers, and even the famous Communist Chinese ballets popular under Chairman Mao. There are endless projections, even film clips, and the stage is chopped up before our eyes allowing viewers to focus on the concerns and actions of one, then two or all three protagonists.

The problem, at least for this critic? We never get a chance to care about Pierre, the failed middle-aged artist who has escaped from Quebec to come to China, or the beautiful young Chinese woman with whom he is having an affair, not to mention Pierre’s former lover who has come to town in an attempt to adopt a Chinese baby. There are shocking, even shattering explosions of Chinese music that go nowhere. Pierre fears emotional involvement, but so what? Evil, capitalist developers threaten to gobble up his apartment and gallery, but we never really feel strongly about anything. There are beautiful rainfalls, gorgeous lightning and terrifying thunder, but so often as to be tedious. And the quality of the writing is so prosaic and dull as to be forgotten within seconds after someone speaks.

Yes, there are some unforgettable and ingenious scenes (I loved the three different endings thrown at us). Is Robert LePage a genius? I certainly was not left with that impression from seeing this surprisingly uninvolving play. Does he have a great eye and an impressive sense of colour, dance, choreography and how to create visual imagery? Undeniably. A man of talent, no doubt. A giant of heightened words and intelligent theatre? Very little of that is hinted at in The Blue Dragon.

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