Thursday, 2 October 2008

The Seven Streams of the River Ota (1994)

The Seven Streams of the River Ota

The first project Robert Lepage created for his company Ex Machina, 'The Seven Streams of the River Ota' is a saga that opens in Hiroshima during the late 20th century and divides into seven tableaux. The symbolic centrepiece of the work is the major event of the explosion of the first atomic bomb, but the work also tells the story of a Czech artist whose childhood was marked by his time in the Terezin concentration camp and who died in Hiroshima, on the banks of the River Ota. To the themes of death by atomic bomb and in concentration camps is added that of death by virus, taking the form of a person with AIDS whose only escape is assisted suicide. In spite of so much grief, the idea of survival emerges with vigour, and Hiroshima resurfaces as a symbol of renaissance rather than destruction.

Theatre Reviews:

'Restless Tribute to Human Resilience'
By PETER MARKS Published: December 4, 1996, Wednesday
*Published in what publication?* - Liam

''I thought you say you take pictures of physical damage,'' the disfigured Japanese woman says in broken English to the American war photographer in one of the opening scenes of Robert Lepage's visually stunning epic-length dramatic work, ''The Seven Streams of the River Ota.'' With her back to the audience, she implores the G.I. to record what the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima has done not only to her surroundings, but also to her.

Her demand for pictorial truth overpowers his revulsion. ''When I die,'' she explains, ''I want people to see my face.'' Kneeling before her, he gently removes her kimono, then steps back to shoot. The neutral eye of the camera allows the soldier to see the external effects of the radiation, and opens his eyes, too, to an inner radiance that the bomb could not extinguish.

With this sentimental, seemingly inconsequential love story on the edge of the abyss, Mr. Lepage, the visionary French-Canadian director, and his versatile cast and crew set in motion an ambitious, rambling, exhilarating portrait of human resilience amid the cultural shifts and multiple apocalypses of the mid- to late 20th century. Jumping from epoch to epoch, continent to continent and language to language, ''The Seven Streams of the River Ota'' employs the narrative techniques of this century and others -- film, documentary, novel, French farce, Noh drama, opera and even medieval Japanese puppetry -- to create a theater piece as sweeping and untamed and whimsical as the modern world itself.

The seven-hour work, which is being performed in two parts at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Majestic Theater through Dec. 14, is the product of an artist at the height of his powers. Ceaselessly, restlessly inventive, Mr. Lepage, a visual imagist who has tackled subjects as diverse as the life of Leonardo da Vinci (''Vinci''), the Old versus the New World (''Tectonic Plates'') and the Chinese experience in Canada (''The Dragons Trilogy''), is obsessed with discovering new ways to tell stories on a stage. Like his war photographer, he is an artist of new technology, meticulously searching for the damage, and always happening upon the beauty.

Mr. Lepage and his myriad collaborators have, for the most part, spared the audience art for art's sake. This is not the kind of airless performance piece that relies on solemn theatrical abstractions like ''myth'' and ''ritual'' and tries to hypnotize rather than entertain (although it does, in the slightly arch fashion of the day, employ theatrically correct puppeteering). Also, the production does take its own sweet time. If the fairly uneventful tale of the soldier and the disfigured woman occupies an hour, so be it; if it takes what seems like eons to depict an elliptical conversation in a Japanese restaurant, then that is O.K. with Mr. Lepage, too.

There is, in fact, nothing conventionally compressed for the stage in this sprawling drama. The seven streams of the title refer to the tributaries of the Ota, a river in Hiroshima, and the seven interrelated stories that begin with the encounter at the woman's cottage in Hiroshima in 1945.

The brief affair has consequences that resonate on three continents for the next 50 years, conjoining disparate people, cultures and cataclysms in a series of Stoppardian chance encounters and parallel events. Hiroshima, the Holocaust and the AIDS epidemic become connected calamities, in the interwoven courses of individual lives. Mr. Lepage, a stylist with a theoretician's appreciation of both order and chaos, has the idea that in the modern world, there are no degrees of separation.

In one of the work's many human chains that stretch across the various stories, a son of the wartime photographer meets a Dutch opera singer in New York City, whose mother died in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where she had befriended a Czech girl. The girl survives and grows up to be a monk in a Zen monastery in Japan, where she becomes friends with a blind Japanese translator who is the half-sister-in-law of the American soldier's son, who dies of AIDS. Whew.

As the piece progresses, the mixings of languages and cultural traditions multiply. A theater troupe from Quebec performs a Feydeau farce in Osaka, in French. The story of the infidelity of a Canadian diplomat is performed by Bunraku puppets. A phone call between a Japanese and a Canadian is carried on, with the assistance of an unreliable translator, in French, Japanese and English. To survive in this complex world, everyone, it seems, must adapt.

The characters are not always well defined: the opera singer, the monk and the translator are chilly, remote creations. And often, the distinctions and connections Mr. Lepage and company are trying to draw are more carefully rendered than the people themselves. This may be a result of the way in which the director, his ensemble of nine actors and the design team have created the work. Mr. Lepage, once an improvisatory comedian, has long been associated with Theatre Repere, a company based in Quebec City that holds to the idea that the text, characters and design should evolve together through the contributions of everyone involved.

But whenever the piece starts to suffer from too-many-cooks syndrome, it is rescued by the virtuosity of its ravishing imagery.

The Japanese cottage is the literal staging ground for virtually all that occurs in ''The Seven Streams.'' Mr. Lepage and the set designer, Carl Fillion, place most of the action in the tiny rooms of the house. In endlessly changing configurations, the cottage's exterior screens are slid in and out to reveal apartments, cafes, theaters. Mirrors, video screens and stage sets within the set are employed as devices to advance the storytelling.

The effect is both theatrical and cinematic. Enclosed by the rectangular rooms, the scenes look like frames of a movie. In a series of vignettes that constitute the second ''stream'' -- a funny, meandering playlet set in New York in 1965, titled ''Two Jeffreys'' -- the screens are pulled back to reveal a warren of a rooming house filled with young musicians and other transients. The three-room layout, resembling nothing so much as a triptych, is a model of ingenuity and caprice.

There are painterly touches, too, such as the exquisite moment near the end of the third ''stream,'' called ''A Wedding,'' in which the American son of the soldier opts to end his life in Amsterdam in 1985 through the legally acceptable practice there of assisted suicide. Lying silently on a cot, with his doctor and his friends nearby and daylight streaming in through a window, he dies in a freeze frame as painstakingly rendered as a Vermeer.

In a work that strives so earnestly for harmony among its musical, dramatic and design elements, no actor is a particular standout. The star is, in a sense, the big picture they have helped to create, the portrait of the world assembled from all the dazzling images that Mr. Lepage draws from his seven streams.

The director ends his immense saga in the present, with the scattering of the cremated remains of the half-American, half-Japanese child of the war photographer and the bomb victim, on the banks of the Ota, at the edge of a restored Hiroshima. It's an apt place for Mr. Lepage's vision of a world of horrible endings and hopeful rebirths. For just as ashes can be wind-borne, so can seedlings.

Posted by Nicole Wooldridge and Kelly Barber

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