For many years, Quebec’s Robert Lepage has been a regular fixture at the du Maurier World Stage, Toronto’s biennial festival of international theater. But his last two offerings — the 1996 one-man adaptation of “Hamlet” called “Elsinore” and “The Geometry of Miracles” in 1998 — were disappointments. Both were underdeveloped and had textual and technical problems.
Happily, “The Far Side of the Moon” is different. There is a cohesion and symmetry to the piece as well as a humanity that supersedes the gimmickry that has sometimes come to be associated with Lepage.
Which is not say that there aren’t many magnificent special effects. But this time they are integral to the action. Most significantly, Lepage has found a way to tie his larger themes into a specific throughline: He explores the narcissism of the space race through the contrasting personalities of the two main characters (brothers), one of whom is successful and vain, the other eccentric, bright and unconventional.
Layered around all this, like a diaphanous cloth, is the way in which the brothers attempt to assimilate their love for their mother and the pain of her death. (Lepage’s own mother died last year.)
Because this is Lepage, the text tends to support the visual and visceral elements of the production, rather than the other way round. As a result, much of what is said serves as a setup for an image.
The death of the mother’s goldfish, with a huge globe becoming an aquarium, turns into a stunning illustration of the fleetingness of life. At another point , the same sphere becomes a washing machine, into which Lepage loads clothes. Drawn into the machine, he emerges on the other side as an astronaut.
The framework of the space race is followed literally, from Sputnik in 1957 to the agreement between Russians and Americans to end their competition. The episodes are juxtaposed against Lepage’s own relationship to the death of his mother, whose body metaphorically has been released into the universe.
The final, disturbing image of the play has Lepage floating in the zero gravity of space — bound by memories but freed of restrictions — with one hand reaching to the security of Earth, the other painfully freeing itself.
Unlike much of Lepage’s previous work, “The Far Side of the Moon” has considerable humor. The jokes are often Canadian in context, even cheekily referring to the French/English issue. This is worth noting because, with his penchant for addressing large themes, Lepage has often sacrificed the specific for the universal. This time the hugeness of this particular canvas does not overwhelm and gives the story immediacy and impact.
As usual, this World Stage production will develop and some of the loose ends will no doubt be tied up. In the meantime, it seems that Lepage’s flight in space has brought him down to earth.
(Program note: The renamed GroomeCapital.com Stage is the former Premiere Dance Theatre at Harbourfront Centre.)