And then once in a while, I forget to take notes. At Playing Cards 1 SPADES last night, I was sucked deep into the unwieldy, heady, political, power-hungry and soul-losing world of Robert Lepage’s new play, imperfect in its newness, minimal yet massive. Set in Las Vegas as President Bush prepares to invade Iraq, SPADES examines war and the military through Altman-esque intricacy of interlocking characters who struggle with power, obligation, and broken dreams. Highly political, it feels timely and necessary, raising voices and linking themes without preaching. There is a beautiful collective threat embedded into the chaos of struggling stories – “If the invisible ones raised their voices…”
First, an admission. I didn’t read the credits carefully enough before the show and this led to one of the best theatrical surprises that I’ve had in a long time. The play ended without the full certainty we needed to know that it was over and the audience was slow to applaud. As the six actors on stage took their first round of bows, I waited for the second group to come on stage. But they never arrived–because six actors play over 30 roles in this piece. And though I recognized that there was some doubling up happening, I had no idea that there were only six players. It’s rare and refreshing to be so very taken in. The six performers are everywhere and everyone at once.
This reveal makes the staging all the more impressive. Set in the round, all of the usual backstage elements are below-stage. The performers make all of their exits/entrances through a myriad of trapdoors. In fact, there are so many possible holes in the stage – as well as a central square section that can be depressed or elevated and an outer circle that revolves – that I began to wonder what was holding it up. As performers slip through the stage, the floor begins to feel very fluid and porous. Doors appear and disappear (noted by a performer who, drugged, comments: “I was sure there was a door here before!”) and screens descend from the heavens to become slot machines, x-rays, and newscasts. While aspects of the staging are realistic, the realism, like the floor, is permeable; it melts into dreamscape and mirage and back.
This Ex Machina production was initiated by the 360 Network and commissioned by Luminato in co-production with a large handful of other network theatres. This was its North American premiere. Still a little rough around the edges, the production feels new but ready. It currently runs at 3 hours without intermission and apparently Lepage has already cut 30 minutes off the performance time since it premiered in Madrid. I have no doubt that it will continue to evolve as it tours to the partner theatres around the world.
While there are plenty of technical tricks behind this production, it also feels like a return for Lepage from spectacle to theatre-making. The script was written collaboratively, developed by Lepage and the performers. Straight up and honest, it is also open and ambiguous. Characters morph, some may be real, or imaginary, or both. Moments of horror are paired with sweet heartbreaking humor. A military commander inspects a young Danish soldier. Just about to leave, he turns back and barks at the soldier: “What have you got on under your jacket?” “A shirt, sir.” “And what is on that shirt?” Long pause, and the question repeated. “A smurf, sir.” “And are smurfs regulation wear in the Danish army?”
SPADES is the first of the Playing Cards quartet. It will be followed by HEARTS (belief and religion), DIAMONDS (wealth and business), and CLUBS (manual labour).
Playing Cards 1: SPADES continues at Luminato until June 17th.