In the 16 years since it premiered at Montreal’s Festival de Theatre des Ameriques (FTA), “The Dragons’ Trilogy” has become the stuff of theater legend in Quebec and beyond. Developed over three years and eventually toured for five more, this epic story of two generations of Quebecers brought director/co-author Robert Lepage to international attention. Now the FTA and Lepage’s Quebec City-based production company Ex Machina have remounted the trilogy with a new cast and beefed-up production values.
The ambitious narrative, which runs from 1910 through the ’80s, traces the interwoven lives of two girls from Quebec City, a Chinese immigrant laundryman and an Englishman who arrives in Quebec to open a shoe store. At six hours (with three intervals), the pace is self-consciously languorous: The success of the production depends on its ability to seduce the audience into its particularly allusive and poetic mode of storytelling. Its limited ability to do so at the moment has much to do with unevenness in the acting.
In its original incarnation, this collaboratively created show was performed by its authors; now it is a text presented by actors who lack an intimate connection to the material. All are fine performers, and one expects that, as the plan is to send the production on one of the international mega-tours that have now become all but standard for Lepage’s works, they will discover greater complicity among themselves, the material and audiences.
There was a thrilling sense of event around the Montreal production: It was staged in a disused railway factory on the city outskirts, with the aud sitting on two sets of risers overlooking the rectangular set of raked sand. Against this is juxtaposed the visual and aural poetry of the production itself, vital proof of Lepage’s mastery of stage imagery. There are many moments that truly astonish in their ability to make emotionally resonant connections between characters and storylines across time and space.
The production works with a relatively small vocabulary of props and set pieces — sheets, shoeboxes, the parking lot attendant’s booth, a barber’s chair, a glass globe — which are imbued with increasing metaphorical significance as the show goes on. The twin motors driving the narrative are a romantically idealistic view of life as a journey toward self-realization, and of societal progress from fear and ignorance of the foreign toward harmonic cross-cultural mingling.
The point of contention here has always been to what extent the naivete and objectification that central characters Jeanne and Francoise initially exhibit toward both the Chinese and English immigrants to their community is actually endorsed by the production itself. The view of outside cultures presented is initially built from a limited group of images and stereotypical behaviors: mah jongg; tai chi; the stooped, opium-smoking, gambling Chinaman; the efficient but prissy Brit; the exquisite geisha.
There is a definite progress indicated, however, toward a more rounded and complex vision of the non-Quebecois characters, underlined here by what appears to be conscious (and sometimes overbearing) overacting of the national cliches early on. In this context, the casting of one English and two Asian actors to play the foreign roles (the original cast were all white Quebecers) feels like a misstep: It makes literal and seems to sanction what the production seems otherwise at great pains to point out are externalized, distant impressions of otherness.
Hugues Frenette brings extraordinary freshness to his portrayal of Francoise’s son Pierre, particularly in the thematically crucial courtship scene with the geisha’s granddaughter, Yukali; one hopes that in time Simone Chartrand will tone down the stridency of her depiction of the elder Francoise (as the younger version of the character, she’s absolutely charming, as is her counterpart Veronika Makdissi-Warren as Jeanne) and that Emily Shelton, too, will relax into her portrait of Yukali.
The unevenness of performance levels feeds into a larger concern about what the work communicates culturally. Much of the excitement about its original incarnation rested around a sense of discovery that emanated both from its formal structures — the way it seemed to invent a language of theater before the audience’s eyes — and from the self-conscious naivete of its world-view, which was read as the creators’ commentary on the need for Quebec to open up a closed discourse about national identity to the rest of the world. A decade and a half later, Quebec is a notably diverse society that has proven itself an international cultural player with the success of, among others, Cirque du Soleil, Celine Dion, and Lepage himself.
“Look how far we’ve come” would seem to be the implicit message of this revival, a message that Montrealers received ecstatically but which, to this outside eye, the production itself is not yet dramatically strong and cohesive enough to carry.