Live cinema, epic theatre

Exercises in exhilaration, from a warehouse happening to Robert Lepage’s nine-hour ‘Lipsynch’,

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A scene from Robert Lepage’s marathon marvel, ‘Lipsynch’

A scene from Robert Lepage's marathon marvel, 'Lipsynch'
A scene from Robert Lepage's marathon marvel, 'Lipsynch'

I’ve meaning to get this blog written for a week, but my real job kept getting in the way. Last weekend I spend about 14 hours consuming art, or rather being consumed by it. I’m still blathering about the experience to whoever will listen, sounding like a crazy person. It’s hard to convey. Last Saturday night I went to a “live cinema” party in a warehouse down near the waterfront. Called Init—”an immersive audio visual experience”— was like the digital era’s version of a ’60s happening. It began outdoors with fire dancers twirling ropes of flame to a vast samba band. Then, in the warehouse, VJs at computer consoles live-mixed a wild array of video, projected around the white cinder-block walls from all angles, while a DJ laid down a heavy pulse of house music. Like the audio, the visuals were looped and overlaid in trance-like beats, images morphing in and out of each other in rhythmic respiration. But it wasn’t a blitz of fast-cutting. These were movies you could dance to, or dream to, and people did, until 4 a.m. The event was not part of Luminato, but it should have been.

The next day, Sunday, I spent almost nine hours immersed in Robert Lepage’s marathon play, Lipsynch, at the Bluma Appel Theatre, which was part of Luminato. You tell people you’ve just spent nine hours watching a play conducted in four languages (with projected sur-titles) and they think you’ve undergone an endurance test, made a heroic sacrifice for art. On the contrary. There was no suffering. The time flew by. It was like taking your brain on a luxurious cruise. Or It spending the day in an art spa, basking in mind massages and sensory wraps. Maybe it was high art but the ascent was effortless: because Lepage did all the work for you, it was experienced as pure entertainment. The intermissions were generous, and you’d chat with friends, fellow travellers, while watching the strange tent city of Woofstock—a dog festival on Front St.—through the theatre’s glass front.

When the play was over, I came out of the theatre exhilarated and refreshed, I realized I’d been treated to one of most breathtaking theatrical events I’ve ever witnessed. I use the word “theatrical” with some hesitation, because it transcended theatre. With natural acting, miraculous staging, operatic arias and a soap-opera plot you could get lost in, Lipsynch was like watching TV or film in the flesh.

It was another kind of live cinema—and not just because Lepage used video projections. The staging had the epic complexity of a movie set that was constantly being erected and broken down. For some scenes it actually was a film set—as we watched the shooting of a movie that fictionalized the story that had just unfolded. Throughout the play, scenes cut and dissolved in and out of each other with cinematic sleight of hand. The transformations were executed with a modular triptych of large, rolling rectangular panels—like 3D movie screens deep enough to serve as rooms with live actors. These epic yet elegant constructions must have been converted into some 50 or 60 sets. A cross-section of a passenger jet stretched the width of the stage. We’d watch a scene unfold in a bookstore, not knowing To see them materialize out of each other was like seeing the mechanics of editing animated on a macroscopic scale. You watch characters having a series of conversations a bookstore, from outside the window, then Lepage turns the scene inside-out, and rolls the same scene from inside the store. One minute you’re in a living room, listening to the BBC, then you’re whisked down the rabbit hole into the BBC studio itself, and then into the soap-opera life of the announcer. And so on . . .

Despite the visual virtuosity, Lipsynch was really about sound. About voice. One of the central characters is an Austrian opera singer played by American soprano Rebecca Blankenship. And some of the key sequences involved a dubbing studio, created with utter realism, where actors synched dialogue to scenes projected on film. So three dimensions were being played out simultaneously on stage—the scene on film, the actor overdubbing the dialogue, and the characters in the control booth, who talk about him without him hearing. And did I mention that this play was often hysterically funny? Lepage may be one of theatre’s most avant-garde innovators, but he’s not too above building a farcical climax out of an extended fart gag. I won’t even begin to describe the plot, which was more expansive than Babel, or list the actors. This is not a review. I’m happy to say I was not on assignment last Sunday. I paid for the pair of $100 tickets out of my own pocket, and it was worth every dime.

The previous night’s semi-underground warehouse rave of live cinema was also an off-duty affair, and worth the $20 that bought me a wristband. The VJs included noted Canadian filmmaker Peter Mettler (Gambling, Gods and LSD), German live cinema guru FaLk—and Brian T. Moore, the local live cinema enthusiast who organized the event. There was also a remarkable dance performance by Andrea Nann and two male partners (Brendan Wyatt and Yuichiro Inoue), a noir ménage-a-trois that was executed outside, on a dimly lit loading dock of the warehouse. That afternoon, just down the street at the Young Centre, I’d seen Andrea perform three of her Divination Duets with Wyatt. My favorite was Insomnia, which involved the two of them in pajamas, as a couple in bed, him asleep, her awake and trying to get comfortable under his dead weight as they half-rolled, half wrestled around the floor in contortions of unconscious desire and unvoiced frustration.

Sometimes the best movies are found outside the cinema.