Celebrated for his heart-stopping imagery and stunning technical effects, Quebec’s theatrical wunderkind, Robert Lepage, has come of age. For the first time his collaborative, epic style has produced a script in which the narrative is in perfect balance with the visual, and the result is a remarkable five-hour production that takes its place alongside such legendary creations as Peter Brook’s “The Mahabharata” and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Nicholas Nickleby.”
Despite its length and scope, “The Seven Streams of the River Ota” is not yet finished. The Canadian premiere at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre, as part of the comprehensive Today’s Japan Festival, featured parts one, two, three, five and seven, in English, French and German, with appropriate surtitles. When parts four and six come, they should smooth out the tiny bit of awkwardness still present in an otherwise seamless storyline, especially at the end, where an eloquent and haunting mood is shattered by deliberate farce. It needs a bridge.
Each segment is complete in itself, but seen as a whole the work provides snapshots of the effects of World War II on a small group of people scattered throughout the world, over a 50-year period. The heartbeat, is a house in Hiroshima on the banks of the River Ota, where several generations connect across a universe transfigured by violence.
In the first part the home belongs to a young women, badly disfigured by the atomic bomb, who forges an awkward but intense relationship with an American soldier sent to take photos of the damage. The setting is deceptively simple; a series of Japanese screens stretching across the stage open to reveal a single room in which an unused, gold-threaded wedding kimono dominates.
Using shadows, Sonoyo Nishikawa’s brilliant lighting and a sharply percussive soundscape by Robert Caux, Michel F. Cote and Claude Soucy, Lepage weaves an emotional throughline into the scene that works in sharp contrast to the formality of the Japanese culture.
In part two the setting switches abruptly to the Nazi concentration camp Terezin. Here we meet Jana, a young Czechoslovakian girl who is befriended by the slightly older Sarah. The scene finds Lepage at his magician’s best: Throughout the sequence the present-day Jana lies on the floor gazing along with the audience into a set of mirrors which open to reveal the camp and her tortured history. With one deft shift, the mirrors duplicate their images to create the illusion of hundreds of prisoners marching into the camp and then later leaving on a deportation train bound for Auschwitz.
The juxtaposition of a harsh backlight and reflected sepia-colored images against the struggle of two women trying to live normally in their abnormal world makes an impact reminiscent of “Schindler’s List.”
Part three moves to a seedy apartment complex in Paris after the war, where Jana (who escaped Terezin) meets Sarah’s daughter, an opera singer, as well as Jeffrey, the child of the Japanese woman and her GI. The three become friends and we now follow Jeffrey’s tragic fate as he deals with AIDS.
After his assisted suicide (a scene devoid of all technical gimmicks in which both powerful dramaturgy and performance result in an almost unbearable poignancy), Jana is bequeathed his house in Hiroshima and in part five we are back where it all started. Jana rents a room to a young Canadian student and eventually the younger man and older woman fall in love.
Part seven, which switches from Jana’s house to a Japanese train station and then to backstage at a theater, devolves into high comedy as a series of new and old characters become caught up in sexual hijinks and betrayal. A short epilogue features Jana, who, like her adopted city of Hiroshima, has managed to survive.
The cast is ideally suited to the catalog of different characters each is required to play — no great surprise in a collective creation, aided by dramaturg Gerard Bibeau. Also, for the most part Lepage works with a core of regulars who understand the nature of his theatrical quests. And there is in “River Ota” a feeling of controlled improvisation, which particularly in the suicide scene adds to the feeling of emotional immediacy permeating the piece.
It is Lepage’s deft touch, his instinct for knowing how to shape a scene and bring out the best in his performers (one of whom, American opera singer Rebecca Blankenship, is not an actor by profession) that ultimately creates harmony among “River Ota’s” many potentially discordant parts.