Although it was presented in New York by the Henson Intl. Festival of Puppet Theater, the little astronaut puppets are mostly ambulatory window dressing in Robert Lepage’s “The Far Side of the Moon.” Manifestly more compelling is the presence of Lepage himself in dual roles, as well as the seamless technical artistry of the production, which mixes media freely and freewheelingly. The play’s ideas are not as artfully integrated, however. “Far Side” aims to suggest parallels between the U.S.-Soviet space race and the fractious relationship between a pair of estranged brothers, but these correspondences never quite take comprehensible or stimulating dramatic form.
“Far Side” is really most accomplished as a pair of subtle character sketches depicting French-Canadian brothers Philippe and Andre.
Philippe is the older, less successful of the pair. He’s working on an advanced scientific degree and doing telemarketing on the weekends (one of the show’s many mordantly funny scenes has Philippe happening upon a newly married ex-girlfriend while plying his humble — not to say humiliating — trade). He’s also coping with the death of the brothers’ mother, and is particularly concerned with an inherited goldfish.
The gay Andre is a TV weatherman, and is as assertive and self-confident as Philippe is withdrawn and neurotic.
In one of the finest monologues in the play, alternately touching and achingly funny, Philippe complains to an uninterested bartender that all the gay people he knows are “carefree, rich and lucky,” and he bitterly laments that the curiosity and compassion that bedevil him are entirely lacking in his brother’s psychological makeup.
In addition to Lepage’s cool, naturalistic performances in both roles, “Far Side” offers some small wonders of stagecraft. A circular door on a washing machine depicted in the first scene will become the hatch of a space capsule, a goldfish bowl, the earth and the moon, thanks to crisp projections.
The show’s final, delightful coup is a trick mirror effect that depicts Philippe suddenly losing his burdensome sense of gravity (pun intended), floating free of cares that have kept him earthbound.
But the various elements of the show itself float about without quite coming together to form a cohesive whole. The puppetry mostly involves images of miniature astronauts (or cosmonauts) on moon walks, and stock and newsreel films of landmarks in the Soviet and U.S. space programs are presented here and there.
But the space-race trappings don’t do much more than pass the time between Lepage’s far more engaging portraits of two men bound by blood who nevertheless seem to live their lives on separate emotional planets.