Yesterday, I saw a matinee performance of Marie Michaud and Robert Lepage’s The Blue Dragon at the National Art Centre here in Ottawa. Although the play is, at times, visually impressive and includes two beautiful (if tangential) pieces of choreography, it is living proof that visual bling for me can not make up for a weak concept / script, lazy acting, and poor pacing. Quelle surprise? Even so, judging by the audience’s reaction to the performance, theatrical bling — either in the form of officially recognized star power or impressive visuals — seems more than enough to please a NAC matinee audience (p.s. I should say this review contains spoilers).
Essentially, the story around which The Blue Dragon hangs is little more than a soap opera. Pierre Lamontagne (Lepage) is catching up with Claire Forêt, an on-again and off-again girlfriend (Michaud). He is expecting to score, she declines, and we soon learn that he is sleeping with a much younger protegee, Xiao Ling (Tai Wei Foo) who exhibits at his gallery. Claire — surprise, surprise — ends up befriending Xiao without knowing about the relationship and — surprise, surprise — eventually sleeps with Pierre in a moment of heartache. Eventually, Xiao discovers she is pregnant. Will or will she not abort? Don’t worry, other than one moment of pure melodrama, no one suffers from any of the consequences of their actions in this story about aging and perpetually adolescent boomers. Moreover, we are offered not one but three happy endings! Phew.
Oh and by the way, it is all set in China — primarily Shanghai. And, honestly, that is exactly how the play’s setting functions in the play. Sure, Pierre riffs now and again on aspects of Chinese culture that help him learn things about himself and sure Claire is in town to buy a Chinese baby and sure the young pregnant lover is Chinese, however, the heart of the play isn’t about China or even about a Canadian’s engagement with China — it about Pierre, his rootlessness, his irresponsibility, and his daddy issues. We could be in Quebec, Montreal, or Toronto. We could be watching a bare stage. It’s all irrelevant. As is so often the case, when an artist becomes entranced by the mystical big-O other, the actual other quickly disappears behind a fictitious facade, which is itself employed only to serve and reflect the artist’s own needs and self-understanding.
To be fair, it is possible, this is actually the point. It is possible that Michaud and Lepage are hoping we will look critically upon these aging and irresponsible boomers — Pierre in particular — who use China as a colorful backdrop to their self-indulgent soap opera. Perhaps, it is not Michaud and Lepage who are trivializing China, perhaps it is the characters and, from this, perhaps, we are meant to reflect critically on these Canadians’ engagement with China.
Unfortunately, the details of the play don’t really support this charitable reading. At times, we are made to think Claire is somehow more of dilettante than Pierre because she brings tacky Canadian gifts, drinks ice wine instead of herbal tea, wears tacky tourist clothing, gives big tips, and wants to buy a Chinese baby rather than legally adopt one form some other third world nation. At times, we are made to think Pierre is authentically embedded in Chinese culture (“gone native”, as they say) because he practices calligraphy and waxes philosophically about it, has a tattoo of a dragon on his back — even though he acknowledges the Chinese historically considered tattoos a kind of punishment — because he speaks (what must be) Mandarin, because he promotes Chinese artists, and because he has a “small” two-story apartment in Shanghai’s art district. Most importantly, in the final reel, it is the white westerners who save the day and do so by taking one of the “China Dolls” back to the promised land. Throw in some media clips that mock China’s appropriation of Western Culture, throw in some adolescent comparisons between the Chinese government and Pierre’s father, throw in the implication that Chinese socialism has somehow personally failed Pierre, and I simply can’t buy that Michaud and Lepage are aiming for an extremely subtle and nuanced critique of their characters. Even in his Director’s Notes, Lepage refers to China as a “fascinating setting” for the play. Some might say “window dressing.”
Part of the problem of making sense of what is happening in the play is Lepage’s modus operandi. He allows his pieces to continually evolve. Scenes are deleted, scenes are added, and dialogue is often improvised. I am all for experimenting with dramatic improvisation and allowing a piece to evolve but there is a reason why theatre has an established tradition of employing writers and scripts, directors and direction. It takes a lot of work and effort to get a piece of theatre on stage that is internally coherent, well-executed, and engaging and The Blue Dragon unintentionally alerts us to this fact.
The dialogue is awkward, stilted and very much feels like actors trying to make it up as they go along. The pacing is abysmally slow. The characters are one dimensional. The performances are not engaging, lack vibrancy, and are melodramatic. There are continuity errors (How long is Claire away — hours or days? Would she really leave her suitcase unlocked if it contained tens of thousands of dollars tucked beneath an effortlessly discovered false bottom?) Certainly, it is pretty to look at but none of the stagecraft is so cutting-edge that anyone who has seen a big broadway production is going to blown away by it.
All in all, The Blue Dragon feels like an underrehearsed, poorly-improvised soap opera which happens to take place inside some visually impressive stagecraft and comes across as an exercise in cultural colonialism. I can’t recommend seeing this show, however, I should note, the audience gave it a rather resounding standing ovation and one person was overheard saying, “best production I’ve ever seen.” I’m not sure if this says something about me or something about Ottawa audiences.
Comments? Thoughts? If you’ve seen the play and disagree with my assessment, please let me know why.
Oh, p.s., the Hinterview with Menno Plukker, the Associate Producer for The Blue Dragon, was great. I’m going to make a point of hitting these interviews more regularly in the future. It looks like the podcast of the interview can be found here but hasn’t been posted at the time of me writing this.