Live from Luminato 2012

Photo by Yves Renaud

Live from Luminato! Yesterday was the formal launch of the 2012 Luminato Festival in Toronto. As well as a gala red-carpet party, multiple headlining events opened, and there were free concerts in the outdoor festival space. There is definitely a buzz around Luminato, evident even to a newcomer to Toronto like me. And so far the noise I’ve heard has been positive. In a climate of Canadian arts cuts, Luminato is certainly featuring grand events and big names. More thoughts on that as the festival progresses and I have the chance to explore the scene.

I spent launch night at the opening night of La Belle et la Bête, the newest multimedia offering from Montreal-based Lemieux Pilon 4D Art (through June 12). Creators Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon have an impressive list

of large-scale productions behind them and are internationally recognized for their work interdisciplinary, immersive, and media rich productions.

In 2011 La Belle et la Bête premiered in Montreal in French. The English language production is a commission from Luminato, presented here for the first time. The choice to present it in English is understandable and yet still strikes me as odd. On the one hand there is no doubt that translating the production into English gives it wider appeal in English-speaking Canada, therefore bringing Québécois artists to the rest of the country. On the other hand, I feel that any Canadian festival of this size, especially one supported by both provincial and federal government funding, should feature at least some French programming. Most major Canadian cities are home to a French community and, in an officially bilingual country, that should be reflected in festival programming. Politics aside, the English script is poetic and honest. At times the language feels a trifle forced and it is hard to say whether that is the structure of the play itself or an issue of translation.

Photo by Yves Renaud

The story is for the most part familiar and linear, but there are certain gaps in character development that might be solved through a non-linear treatment. Though we told that the setting is contemporary, there are few visuals clues to that effect. Belle (Bénédicte Décary) and the Beast (Stéphane Demers) are irresistibly drawn together through their individual sadnesses. Belle, a hipster-esque artist, is not a prisoner of his castle but returns out of a obsessive need to capture his tortured soul by drawing him. I was delightfully surprised by character of the Lady (Diane D’Aquila) who, after threatening to become yet another fairy-tale narrator, becomes instead a wonderfully demonic “good fairy”–easily the most interesting, funny, and well-developed character in the piece. (Spoiler: her jealousy-driven description of how she would like to kill Belle is morbidly delightful.)

I have a love/hate relationship with digital media in the theater. Maybe we all do by now. Perhaps a company that is a theater of digital media ought to be evaluated a little differently than a theater company using media in one production. So I tried to watched the performance without questioning the use of media but looking rather how it was used and the varying degrees of effectiveness of that use.

Like any highly mediated production, La Belle et la Bête is frought with issues of liveness. It is incredibly difficult for live actors to compete with the projected media. Décary, D’Aquila, and Demers work very hard to maintain their presence while surrounded by digital specters. D’Aquila is the most successful, with a presence that belies her businesslike costume. But to their credit, none of them are fully lost under the deluge of media.

There are two levels to the media: live scenery that is essentially 2D but layered through the use of multiple  scrims, and 3D characters–think Star Trek hologram–that interact with the live performers. The scenic projections, while often beautiful, are most effective when they are subtle. On occasion elements of scenery evolve so slowly that it almost feels like a trick of our own eyes. There is a gargoyle, for example, slowly changes position over the course of a scene. I also found the scenic transitions more dynamic than the static scenes as both the projections and the scrim surfaces moved fluidly across the stage. In such a media-rich production, even the projected images sometimes compete with each other. Some of the effects wow more than others. The rain effect in particular is gorgeous – and the performer reacted with a such a detailed physical response that I kept expecting her to be really drenched. Other effects feel more force, added as filler perhaps but distracting instead of adding to the whole.

The reappearing holographic characters are infinitely more interesting, though also more problematic in terms of timing and stage space. Having never performed with a hologram, I am not sure how (or indeed whether) they appear to the actor on the stage. The live performers interacted with the digital ones with certainly and confidence but there were a few moments where the two worlds did not quite line up. The holographic characters are witty, stubborn, and persistent, inner demons that won’t be banished. They got more laughs than the live characters.

It was almost a relief to see the actors on the bare stage at the end – they seemed much larger and more vital. A summary moment on a rare bare stage from the fairy (or is she an witch?) at the end suggests that all the media might simply be projections of our own imaginations. This is a powerful suggestion – how do we tell and ornament the stories that we each tell? Rather than seeking to fill the space through media, I would love to see 4D Art explore the way media changes space. Their command of cutting edge technology is exciting but I think it could truly extend the storytelling rather than simply support it.

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