My joy in the revolutionary work of the Québécois genius, Robert Lepage, is no secret. I love him even when he goes wrong. Because he takes big, imaginative risks, because even when he falters, there’s always something that blows your mind.
There’s no one quite like him-and how I wish there were! His happy marriage of technology and theater has created a unique contribution at the very time it’s most needed. He humanizes the technological, rather than being swamped by it. On the eve of a new age-our Brave New World-Mr. Lepage’s masterly theater of memorable images dissolves seamlessly into the void. His stories are not small, not middlebrow. They burst from a center of playfulness and admirable sensual simplicity. His experimental collaborative work with the Ex Machina company of Quebec is the future.
Geometry of Miracles , Mr. Lepage’s homage to the new and the spiritual in the hallucinatory form of Frank Lloyd Wright and the philosopher-guru G.I. Gurdjieff, strikes us immediately as a boldly original idea. But then, an earlier brilliant piece, Needles and Opium , linked Jean Cocteau and Miles Davis in an instinctive free fall of surreal stage pictures and words. Cocteau and Davis were at the barricades of the modern, of course; and both were addicts (opium for the poet, heroin for the jazzman).
So Wright and Gurdjieff are linked in an unexpected new light. The modernist revolutionary who created organic architecture and the spiritual teacher who taught self-knowledge through organic movement were both icons. Both were monumental egotists with slavish followers, and both were revolutionary mavericks.
Some say Gurdjieff was a manipulative charlatan. Mr. Lepage suggests so in Geometry of Miracles (which was all too briefly part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival). Rodrigue Proteau, the amazing actor who plays him like a bullheaded samurai, also plays Gurdjieff’s double, Beelzebub, a naked apparition we first see emerging miraculously from Wright’s desk to sit on the master’s knee like a narcissistic lap dancer. The spiritual guide and the devil are joined at the hip, as it were.
It was Wright’s bossy third wife, Olgivanna, who was the true Gurdjieff disciple. In 1934, she invited the mystic (and gourmet) to Wright’s Wisconsin base, Taliesin. Wright was struck by his presence and admired his holistic ideas, but Gurdjieff’s influence on his architecture is more speculative than Mr. Lepage makes out.
I first came across Gurdjieff in the company of Peter Brook, whose early experimental work was influenced by him. Some of the exercises of Mr. Brook’s Paris-based troupe were similar to Gurdjieff’s work on self-awareness and inner harmony. The hypnotic Gurdjieffian dance movements that are the dreamlike feature of Geometry of Miracles still look a little fascistic to my untutored eyes. But Mr. Lepage is linking Gurdjieff’s “sacred dances” and unity of self to Wright’s mastery of space and nature, and geometric images.
So much for scholarship unless, by chance, you would like me to dip into René Daumal’s unfinished masterpiece, Mount Analogue , which grappled with the Gurdjieffian mystery of essence (“Seeing that you are nothing, you desire to become/ In desiring to become, you begin to live”), in addition to, of course, the collected works of Gurdjieff’s main man, the Russian-born P.D. Ouspensky (1878-1947). The point is, Mr. Lepage thankfully treats the tricky spiritual aspects of Geometry of Miracles with a sense of humor. Icon-bashing is one of the healthy games he plays.
His fictional Gurdjieff drops dead from his own hysterical, hyperventilating attempts to stop his devoted disciples from mimicking his every gesture. In another dazzling scene, Mr. Lepage has Herbert Johnson of the Johnson Wax fortune-Wright famously designed his headquarters in Wisconsin-tap-dancing the words of an inspired letter to his secretary, who’s a sunny, bosomy bloke in drag, miming typing. “Now read that back to me!” he says when he stops. For a few dizzying moments, it’s like watching a breezy 1930′s movie.
But as always with Mr. Lepage, there are images of exceptional simplicity and beauty. He re-creates the toadstool columns of Wright’s visionary Johnson Wax building with the magically naïve device of having Wright’s students place several plates on top of the wine glasses that were laid out for dinner. Gurdjieff’s erotic encounter with a young girl is suggested when he whirls them both through space; an effortless doodle of a spiral by Wright on paper looks familiar-the instant prototype for the Guggenheim Museum.
Mr. Lepage’s synthesis of theater with film and dance, shadow play and music has its own architecture and organic integrity. At his most creative, everything proceeds with utter naturalness, as it did with his seven-hour masterpiece, The Seven Streams of the River Ota . Its imaginative scale was fantastic. With its central design motif of a triptych screen that pulsated like a heart, the story evolved from Hiroshima in 1945 to a Rear Window view of a 1960′s New York apartment block, to the terrible assisted suicide of a young man with AIDS, to a holocaust of mirrors, and a bunraku story of how, by a strange twist of fate, the search for an aphrodisiac for the lovers of the Emperor of China led herbalists to invent what was to become the atomic bomb.
In its awesome way, Seven Streams was about beginning again. So is the two-hour traffic of Geometry of Miracles . It’s a less ambitious piece, however, and it loses focus and steam in its second act. They ran out of ideas! It’s almost reassuring. Mr. Lepage has come thus far, it seems, to end with a whimper-or a shrug-with a scene set in a disco, which has about as much in common with Wright and Gurdjieff as Puff Daddy. But then, I still remember it-this final image of order danced out of chaos, like a pagan celebration of renewed harmonious life.