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Lipsynch

A nine-story, nine-hour epic of continent-crossing lives, director/co-writer Robert Lepage's "Lipsynch" is held together by the theme of oral vs. aural communication. Interlocked characters illustrate dramas about recorded and live speech and song, tales of individual timbres, voiceovers, dubbing, language and translation. Yet Lepage mistakes breadth of vision for depth. While there's impressive theatrical conjuring along the way, creative rigor and tension are ultimately lost. Lepage has almost endless resources, but he lacks an editor.

With:
Marie - Frederike Bedard Sebastian - Carlos Belda Ada - Rebecca Blankenship Michelle - Lise Castonguay Jackson - John Cobb Lupe - Nuria Garcia Sarah - Sarah Kemp Jeremy - Rick Miller Thomas - Hans Piesbergen

A nine-story, nine-hour epic of continent-crossing lives, director/co-writer Robert Lepage’s “Lipsynch” is held together by the theme of oral vs. aural communication. Interlocked characters illustrate dramas about recorded and live speech and song, tales of individual timbres, voiceovers, dubbing, language and translation. Yet Lepage mistakes breadth of vision for depth. While there’s impressive theatrical conjuring along the way, creative rigor and tension are ultimately lost. Lepage has almost endless resources, but he lacks an editor.

 Lepage’s typically audacious fusion of versatile sets and projections allows him to telescope time and place with exhilarating theatrical economy. Dramatic interior-exterior leaps from war-torn Vienna through pre-revolutionary Nicaragua to present-day France, Germany, Spain and London are cunningly presented via an overarching storyline.

Ada (a beautifully implacable Rebecca Blankenship) is an Austrian soprano who, while on a plane flying to an international opera engagement, discovers a baby in the arms of a young dead woman. An intriguingly tangled web of interconnected lives is spun thanks to Ada’s attempt to discover what happened to the baby boy, an act with limitless consequences.

Her inquiries lead her to German trainee neurosurgeon Thomas Bruckner (a crisp and scrupulous Hans Piesbergen). Lepage then fast-forwards through Ada’s adoption of the boy, Jeremy (Rick Miller), to his early adolescence. Years later Ada and Thomas meet again by chance and move in together, a relationship scorned by the now-disaffected 18-year-old Jeremy.

Through Thomas, we follow one of his patients, Marie (Frederike Bedard), a French jazz singer who dubs films into her native language. Further sections are devoted to Marie’s unstable sister Michelle (Lise Castonguay), haunted by voices; the Spanish director of the dubbing studio; an elderly speech therapist and her domestic help; and a former prostitute who hunts down her long-lost brother.

The company-authored script’s execution of ideas is impressive, but much of the dialogue feels generic and lacks a distinctive voice. Furthermore, it’s not just the secret hand tremor of neurosurgeon Thomas — a major plot point from “Grey’s Anatomy” — that makes the multistrand narrative teeter on the brink of smart soap.

Too many of the self-referential narratives are not plots but ploys, dramatically inert illustrations of yet another variant on the “voices” theme. That explains uninflected scenes like movie soundtracks and laugh tracks being dubbed, a sequence with Foley artists or Marie rehearsing her church choir.

There’s a nagging sense that the form has been dictated by notions beyond the material. Why have a wholly tangential comic plot set in Spain? Because that’s where some of the funding is from. Why nine plots? Because each of the cast members should get a story. But what’s good for balance and internal politics isn’t necessarily good for drama.

Much of the material spins from the semiautobiographical film adult Jeremy makes from his best guess at his birth mother’s life. This provides often amusing opportunities to show the misinterpretations of filmmaking — “the art of lying,” says Jeremy — but, tonally, it creates more problems than it solves.

His film is clearly meant to be multilingual, European melodramatic nonsense. That makes it hard to sympathize with his creative and emotional dilemmas that spark the play’s twin highpoints.

At the end of the first act, Jeremy angrily leaves for America. As he stares out of the plane window, the ghost of his birth mother appears and his adoptive mother sings one of the “sorrowful songs” of Gorecki’s celebrated 3rd Symphony. It’s a highly emotional moment deepened when Jeremy, too, begins to sing. That sequence is mirrored by the uplifting, puzzle-solving finale that peaks with an image of redemption and reconciliation.

Those moments stand almost as a rebuke to the disappointing slightness of some of the intervening stories. It’s hard not to conclude that there’s a more trenchant, shorter sprint struggling to get out of this intermittently dazzling marathon.

Lipsynch

The Barbican, London; 1,019 seats; £60 $106 top

Production: An Ex Machina/Theater Sans Frontieres presentation in association with Cultural Industry and Northern Stage, co-produced by Barbicanbite08, Cabildo Insular de Tenerife, Festival TransAmeriques Montreal, Festival de Otono Madrid, La Comete, Arts 276/Automne en Normandies, Le Volcan -- Scene National du Havre, Luminato, Toronto Festival of Arts & Creativity, Chekhov Theater Festival, Moscow, and Brooklyn Academy of Music, of a play in six acts, written by Frederike Bedard, Carlos Belda, Rebecca Blankenship, Lise Castonguay, John Cobb, Nuria Garcia, Marie Gignac, Sarah Kemp, Robert Lepage, Rick Miller, Hans Piesbergen. Directed by Lepage.

Creative: Sets, Jean Hazel; costumes, Yasmina Giguere; lighting, Etienne Boucher; sound, Jean-Sebastian Cote; props; Virginie Leclerc; images, Jacques Collin; production stage manager, Judith Saint-Pierre. Opened, reviewed Sept. 7, 2008. Running time: 8 HOURS, 50 MIN.

Cast: Marie - Frederike Bedard Sebastian - Carlos Belda Ada - Rebecca Blankenship Michelle - Lise Castonguay Jackson - John Cobb Lupe - Nuria Garcia Sarah - Sarah Kemp Jeremy - Rick Miller Thomas - Hans Piesbergen

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