Stunningly theatrical, visually striking and emotionally uplifting, helmer Robert Lepage’s “The Far Side of the Moon” is a wondrous trip around inner and outer space. The experimental Canadian theater auteur, famous for his gift of imagery and metaphor, takes on universal themes — quite literally — in this one-actor meditation on the quest to understand one’s place in the cosmos.
Story centers on Philippe, a 40ish longtime doctoral student of cultural philosophy defending (for the third time) his thesis that man’s interest in space is motivated not by curiosity but narcissism. We look at the orbiting globes as mirrors to reflect on ourselves, says the sensitive, eccentric and troubled soul. But there are also battered, disfigured and dark sides to these lumps in the void that are out of sight to us — and out of mind as well.
As he completes his dissertation, there’s a lot on Philippe’s mind: the recent death of his mother, his failure in relationships and academics, conflicts with his estranged gay younger brother, Andre.
Andre is the glib family success, a confident TV weatherman who looks at the world as simply a series of swirling meteorological fronts. Shy, self-effacing Philippe, on the other hand, seeks structure and solace in space. He certainly isn’t getting it on Earth.
The sibling symmetry is sometimes obvious but also sublime in Lepage’s elegant and imaginative staging. Using a haunting score by Laurie Anderson, robotics, puppets, giant mirrors, film and video — not to mention pure theatrical stagecraft in the simplest of objects, such as an ironing board or a washing machine window — Lepage creates a mesmerizing world. It’s one with shifting points of view where one brother is grounded in reality while the other attempts to defy gravity.
This sibling rivalry is reflected with a narrative that also dissects the U.S.-Soviet space race of the 1950s and ’60s. Philippe identifies with the failures of the Soviets’ quest for the cosmos after the program’s brilliant start and series of breakthroughs. He presumes the cosmonauts are as melancholy as he is and seeks counsel in his sadness.
But a contest to create a video to be sent into space gives Philippe a therapeutic outlet to cope with his lost and lonely existence on his own planet.
In a way, “The Far Side of the Moon” is the theatrical equivalent of that video, with Lepage exploring the nature of life (and death) on Earth. But this is not simply a lyrical stage poem but a show filled with humor (droll Canadian humor at that), wry observations and even sociopolitical points.
Many of the scenes are brilliant and entertaining set pieces: Philippe, moonlighting as a telemarketer, coincidentally calling his now-married ex-girlfriend; Andre trapped in an elevator that has him tripping back in time to his drugged, dazed and confused adolescence; Philippe wondering to a bored bartender about the cosmonauts’ bitterness; Andre breaking the news to his brother that their mother’s goldfish has died; Philippe making his video explaining his planet — and his apartment — to the universe.
Quebec actor Yves Jacques takes over the dual roles from Lepage (who originally starred in the 2000 piece and made a film of it as well). Jacques as Philippe is wry, painfully self-aware and low-key. It’s a perf that sneaks up on you until he finally makes you care tremendously not only for his loneliness, but for his brother’s human and all-too-recognizable traits as well.
Tech elements are all deftly done. Anderson’s score heightens the transformative nature of the scenes that take Philippe on his fantastical journey. Pierre Robitaille and Sylvie Coubron’s cosmonaut puppets, masterfully manipulated by Eric Leblanc, are also witty and right.
Lepage’s final image is one to remember: Philippe finally letting go of his earthbound angst, free of his mourning and his gravitas, forever floating and finding his place in the beauty of space.