Life in Tokyo is busy and routine, and it often seems that the chances of having a truly “new” experience become fewer as we get older. Similarly with the stage. If you’ve assiduously been going to the theater for more than 20 years, the freshness of the experience tends to fade. Regrettably, it is often all too easy to categorize productions into certain patterns — and it becomes increasingly unlikely that you will encounter one that is not only exciting but also truly original.
However, even seasoned theater-goers will surely experience great surprise and even greater pleasure on watching “The Far Side of the Moon,” a new production by dramatist Robert Lepage. This creative and magical world, sprung from the imagination of the 44-year-old Canadian, is now at the outstanding Setagaya Public Theater — an appropriate venue given that SPT’s artistic director, Mansai Nomura, is at the vanguard of contemporary theater.
Born in Quebec City in 1957, Lepage first attracted critical attention with his solo performance “Needles and Opium” in 1991, and then his French-language “Shakespeare Trilogy” of “Macbeth,” “Coriolanus” and “The Tempest” the following year.
That year, too, he debuted in Britain, at the National Theatre in London, with “A Midsummer’s-Night Dream.” Dubbed a “mud-caked Dream,” this had the critics in a tizzy for its unconventional staging in which a pond and dirt occupied the center of the stage, instead of the more usual enchanted fairy woodland. To me, at least, this staging was far more exciting than the conservative English directorial attempts at contemporizing Shakespeare at that time.
After “Dream,” Lepage expanded his activity to directing films and opera and, in 1993, came to Japan for the first time, bringing a staging of the “Shakespeare Trilogy” performed by the Canadian company Theater Repere. Since then, he has been involved in numerous Japanese collaborations, including, in 1996, a Tokyo staging (with Japanese cast) of his play “Polygraph,” and working with the conductor Seiji Ozawa at his annual music festival in Matsumoto in 1999.
This time, he has brought his “The Far Side of the Moon,” which last year won the London Time Out and Evening Standard awards for Best Play. This solo performance, acted by the talented and protean Canadian Yves Jacques, opens with a man doing his laundry.
Then, when he opens the tumble-dryer’s door, it is as if he falls down Alice’s rabbit hole to Wonderland. His fantastical journey of the imagination does not cease to astound for the next two hours.
Jacques plays two brothers whose characters are so completely different that they may as well be living on different planets. One, Philippe, is a clumsy perpetual student who for two years has tried and failed to get his cultural philosophy doctoral degree accepted; the other, younger brother is Andre, a greasy but successful TV weatherman. For these brothers, their mother’s death is a trigger that turns their thoughts toward their childhood and their roots. Each brother starts to think about the other.
Bipolarity is the theme of this work. The title alludes to the 20th-century discovery, by a Soviet research ship, of the far side of the moon. This face was unexpectedly rough and unappealing — in contrast to the beautiful side visible from Earth down the ages. Yet even things that appear opposed — as, for instance, the U.S.S.R. and the United States in the Cold War era — may, this play tells us, just be different sides of the same coin.
But it’s not just “things,” here, because this play gives us a chance to see ourselves from both sides, too. Throughout the play Lepage uses clever distorting tricks to double our viewpoint: at the same time as Philippe looks into the tumble-dryer, a camera captures his image from the inside, projecting it onto black sliding doors that extend the entire width of the stage. At other times, a mirror descends from above the stage and appears to show an astronaut space-walking. Really, though, it is reflecting the actor crawling on the stage.
These instances of visual magic come one after another, drawing the audience into an intellectually provocative world of the imagination: a world in which an ironing board may change into gym training machines, black partition doors into an elevator, or the tumble-dryer’s door into the hatch of a spaceship, a goldfish bowl or a womb.
These flights of the imagination reminded me strongly of stagings mounted by leading Japanese theater companies of the 1980s, such as Yumeno Yuminsha, Sanjuu Maru, or Yu Kikai Zenjido. Nonetheless, this production seamlessly presents a totally integrated, distinctively Lepagian world, one overflowing with poetic plots, startling visual effects and intellectual jokes.
Add to this an avant-garde musical score by Laurie Anderson, and Yves Jacques’s brilliant performance — together, at times with a puppet — and we have here before us something marvelous, something beyond special. Lepage’s triumphant illusion will challenge a part of your brain that’s likely never been used before — and show you the far side of yourself.