Personal appearances by true theatrical visionaries are rare enough that attention must be paid, even when the work at hand is less than their seamless best. Robert Lepage’s slow, cerebral meditation on modern China, “The Blue Dragon,” may not live in the pantheon occupied by the 1985 “Dragons’ Trilogy,” to which this world premiere is a nominal sequel. But to see this master sculptor of light, space and sound directing and performing is rewarding — and eminently worth venturing out of one’s comfort zone.
While the 5½-hour “Trilogy” explored the Eastern world as seen through the skewed eyes of the West — our local Chinatowns and cliched images taking the place of first-hand Asian experience — the new piece sends two characters directly to China and discreetly charts the collisions thereby created.
A key figure in the trilogy, Pierre (a typically diffident yet intense Lepage), has been overseas for two decades, mastering calligraphy and running a gallery as part of a Chinese art renaissance. Advertising exec Claire (co-author Marie Maichaud, strong and wry) arrives in Shanghai partly to catch up with an old pal and drum up business amidst the Chinese “economic miracle,” but mostly to adopt a local baby and redeem a life of hard drinking and lost opportunities.
Her efforts hit a great wall until Xiao Ling (the charming Tai Wei Foo), an artist and (we infer) Pierre’s sometime lover, announces she’s pregnant. The culture takes such mishaps in stride: “She’ll abort it!” a confident Pierre informs Claire. “There’s a clinic for that on every street corner.”
But the events of “The Blue Dragon,” alternately fluid and disjointed, begin to reveal a changing nation in parallel with the changing characters. This is most clearly indicated by three interpolated dances from choreographer Tai Wei Foo: a traditional one merging with astonishing splashes of projected color; a People’s Revolutionary turn complete with twirled rifle; and a final modern-dress solo against a snowy backdrop.
If the nation is a sturdy tree, the roots are shaky in the wake of the Beijing Olympics as big business. KFC is making its inroads, and indigenous art now gives way to mass-produced Van Gogh knockoffs.
At this crossroads in time, “The Blue Dragon” seems to be saying, neither the nation nor the characters can be depended upon to make the obvious choices. And indeed, the show’s final moments play out three different variations on the same denouement, inviting us to decide among them.
The action unfolds on a giant two-tiered steel set representing Pierre’s apartment, red walls below and frosted windows above. Screens large and small are rung down to transform the space — Lepage is big on transformations — into a delicate studio, or garishly lit train station or airline terminal. At one point the lower level is divided into successive panels like a comicbook, featuring ravishing silhouettes of mimed activity.
Panels themselves serve as screens for a calligraphy demonstration, Chinese TV commercial or — most memorably — a snake-like ride down the Blue River, split screens sinuously directing our hypnotized attention.
In its offhanded treatment of larger themes, and sometimes contrived intersection of the personal and political, the show feels like a sketch for a larger work rather than a coherent whole of its own.
The production is still finding its footing, with sliding panels hitting furniture, and projected subtitles out of sync with spoken Chinese. Any premiere can be forgiven its tech glitches, but they become particularly glaring when an aesthetic is so dependent on absolute precision.
In any case, Lepage does not produce the kind of avant-garde entertainment (like Richard Foreman’s “What to Wear”) in which the spectator can sit back and be happily transported by images alone. His work challenges an engaged intelligence willing to connect the proffered dots and engender emotion within oneself. Some of the images and ideas are almost unbearably affecting. But you have to work at it. Still, anyone seriously interested in the multimedia possibilities of contemporary theater should be eager to pick up the gauntlet.