Thursday, 2 October 2008

The Geometry of Miracles (1998)

The Gazette
March 18th, 2000, Pat Donnelly
Lepage's Geometry refines Wright angles.

The works of Robert Lepage aren’t so much plays as they are dreamscapes, obeying the mind’s nocturnal whims rather than its daytime logic.

His Geometry of Miracles is a flowing visionary piece that follows the life story of renowned American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, from age 62 to his death almost 30 years later. When it was launched two years ago at the Du Marier World Stage festival in Toronto, it was a 41/2 hour epic with no epicenter. Peripheral characters talked about Wright. His widow donned his coat. But no actor had yet been found to portray on stage the father of organic architecture. Now, the show that underwhelmed Toronto has been thoroughly rewritten, with juicy biographical details added, and the playing time cut to less than three hours (with intermissions). Wright is represented by British actor Tony Guilfoyle, a silver-haired Paul McCartney type with wonderfully understated delivery and a credible American accent.

The link between Wright and Greek-Armenian guru Georgi Gurdjieff, who counted Wright’s third wife, Olgivanna, among his disciples, now seems more integral to the work, as does his relationship with his wife (Lise Roy).

The devil, too, looms larger, not to mention flamboyantly naked. The struggle between the genius and his demon is echoed by an invigorating acting match between the players who portray them.

For openers, Rodrigue Proteau, a dance-actor long associated with Carbone 14, emerges from behind a drawing board, wearing nothing but demonic horns. He slips on to Guilfoyle’s lap, only to be put in his place by the drop of a hat to his crotch. Guilfoyle wins the round, as Wright ultimately wins back his soul. But the ubiquitous Proteau returns as Gurdjieff, Lenin and a waiter, ever ready to steal a scene. He cuts his most striking figure as the growling devil in the desert puffing on two fistfuls of cigarettes - the modern smoker demonized.

What Wright wants from the devil is prolonged youth. What he gets is three decades of renewed creativity after the age of 60. The devil isn’t the only one who wants his soul. Herbert Johnson of Johnson’s Wax, and every other corporate hustler of the time, knows a Frank Lloyd Wright building is the ultimate status symbol. As Johnson, the fast-talking Thaddeus Phillips stops the show by tap-dancing his dictation to his secretary Marge (Kevin McCoy). He also shines in the dinner scene in which Wright’s disciples deftly assemble a building model out of wine glasses and plates.

Rick Miller (of McHomer fame) gives a strong performance as son-in-law and fellow architect Wes Peters, who never quite escapes the Wright family web after his wife, Sveltana (Catherine Martin), dies.

The closing disco scene makes more sense than before as Peters and fellow disciple Jacques L’Allier (Jean-François Blanchard) loosen up their limbs with Gurdjieff spiritual-exercise moves and pass them on until the whole crowd is doing geometric dance. Meanwhile, the credits roll and the Wright-Gurdjieff legacy lives on.

This sweeping, thought-provoking piece is performed almost entirely in English with French subtitles. But a couple of second-act Paris scenes are in French only, without translation. After Montreal, the next stop is Chicago, where Wright once ruled supreme.

THEATER REVIEW; 'The Muse and Architect as One, Propagating Immortal Forms'
Published: April 23, 1998, Thursday

After the pallbearers lay the coffin of Frank Lloyd Wright on the rain-soaked earth in ''Geometry of Miracles,'' Robert Lepage's somber meditation on the events and ideas that informed the work of the visionary architect, Wright's widow, Olgivanna, steps forward for what one might assume will be the requisite parting gesture.Well, there is a gesture, although not the expected one: Olgivanna, played by Marie Brassard, pries open the lid, reaches in and collects the corpse's hat, cane and overcoat, which she drapes over her shoulders, and walks away.

It's a bizarre way to run a funeral, but absolutely par for the course for Mr. Lepage, the French-Canadian stage director and performance artist whose specialty, demonstrated in past productions like ''The Seven Streams of the River Ota,'' is the heart-stopping visual stroke. In this instance, the violation of a coffin is not meant so much to shock as to stake a claim, to underline the mystical connection between a husband and wife, artist and acolyte, prophet and true believer. The connection transcends death, and to make it even plainer Mr. Lepage, in flashback, has Ms. Brassard play both the wife and, complete with overcoat, the architect himself.''Geometry of Miracles,'' which had its world premiere here at the 1998 du Maurier World Stage Festival, an 18-day exhibition of works from as far away as Ireland and Lithuania, is the hugely ambitious Mr. Lepage's latest big-canvas experiment in bringing a complex visual esthetic to the world of ideas. The 3-hour-and-45-minute work, created with the members of his Quebec City troupe, Ex Machina, as well as frequent collaborators like Ms. Brassard and Carl Fillion, the set designer, is another installment in what one might call the Cirque de Lepage, a veritable three-ring circus of images and effects that could only have been assembled in hallucinations if not constructed in Ex Machina's workshops.

For all its scope and seriousness, however, the version of ''Geometry'' that Mr. Lepage unveiled here seems very much a work in development. Though never dull -- Mr. Lepage has an apparent immunity to the commonplace -- the production, at this juncture, drifts off on so many tangents that it tends to lose its sense of direction, like a tourist who wanders off the main road for a bit of sightseeing one too many times. As a result, it's a bit of a chore to sit through. Challenging intellectuality is one thing; a shapeless narrative that flirts with incoherence is quite another.

It's not hard to see why this might have happened. Ex Machina's improvisatory style, encouraging the entire cast to develop the text, contributes to a sense of play writing by consensus. For another thing, vivid dialogue doesn't seem to be of paramount concern to Mr. Lepage and his troupe.

As with large sections of his stirring ''Seven Streams of the River Ota,'' performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the fall of 1996, ''Geometry'' displays a lot less polish in the verbal elements than the visual. Characters often utter lines that sound as if they have been copied down from the pages of Kahlil Gibran. For instance: ''Learn to see the invisible. Then perhaps you will find immortality.''

In ''Ota,'' a seven-hour exploration of the cataclysms, from atomic warfare to AIDS, that have preoccupied the world in the second half of the 20th century, the underwritten dialogue could be overlooked because the events depicted were globally shared experiences, more easily digested in striking tableaux. The terrain of ''Geometry,'' however, is much less familiar and the tale considerably more cerebral, the kind of rich vein of intellectual history better suited to a master manipulator of syntax, like Tom Stoppard.

Still, one hopes Mr. Lepage's new production, which he is taking on a tour of Europe, will continue to evolve. In ''Geometry,'' he deals not only with the ascendancy of Frank Lloyd Wright, in the years in which he refined his organic architectural style in major commissions like the Johnson Wax building and the Guggenheim Museum, but also with an exploration of the nature of collaborative art and the mysteries in the passage of knowledge from teacher to pupil. Mr. Lepage's touchstone for all of this is Olgivanna, a Yugoslav-born dancer who became Wright's third wife in 1928 and deeply influenced his work.

As the title implies, ''Geometry of Miracles'' is obsessed with shapes and patterns, from the prehistoric cave drawings at Lascaux to the stylized exercises of the 20th-century philosopher and human-potential guru G. I. Gurdjieff, of whom Olgivanna was a disciple.

The theatrical manifestations are often satisfying: the notion of memory, for instance, represented by a giant, revolving eye. And there is intelligence in the historical inventions: the onslaught of the Great Depression, captured in the fading voices of stockbrokers; a Johnson Wax executive tap-dancing his dictation to a secretary seated at a silent typewriter.

But the characters who file through this panorama are mere shadows on the theater walls, and the patterns ''Geometry'' plays with remain rather formless, as if viewed from too close or, maybe, too far away. Architects allow the casual observer to find order in the arrangements of triangles and parallelograms; Mr. Lepage's production at present permits no such useful leap.


By Robert Lepage, in collaboration with the performers. Directed by Mr. Lepage. Assistants to the director, Bruno Bazin and Lise Castonguay; sets by Carl Fillion; costumes and wigs by Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt; lighting by Eric Fauque; image design by Jacques Collin and Carl Fillion. Presented by Ex Machina. Part of the du Maurier World Stage Festival. At Premiere Dance Theater, Harborfront Center, Toronto, Canada.

WITH: Tea Alagic, Daniel Belanger, Jean-Francois Blanchard, Marie Brassard, Denis Gaudreault, Anthony Howell, Kevin McCoy, Thaddeus Phillips, Rodrigue Proteau and Catherine Tardif.

Ex Machina: Geometry of Miracles

Inspiration: The American Frank Lloyd Wright (1867 - 1959) was an extremely prominent architect of Welsh origin. He worked as an interior designer, writer, and educator as well as his architectural work. He could be described as incredibly organic in the way he worked so a lot of his projects and ideas could be seen as new and innovative. Frank Lloyd Wright’s life was a huge inspiration for Geometry of Miracles. The show makes many references to his work including the Johnson Wax Building and the Guggenheim Museum.

The life and times of Frank Lloyd Wright are focused on within the production, including his second wife Olgivanna. Concerning Olgivanna the production looks at how her thought process may have been influenced by the Russian-born Gurdjieff, a philosopher type character of the time.

Subject Matter: This production really focuses on the individuality one can bring to their work and the process in which they plan, devise and create the end result. It really hones in on the individual character’s identity and what gives them reason to perform their actions. Like many of the Ex Machina productions Geometry of Miracles is made of many different media including film projection, lighting, sound, music and a choreographed ensemble. He has pushed the boundaries of the use of media and uses innovative ideas which amaze the audiences.

Robert Lepage enthused local theatre risk-takers with more than his stunning visual tableaux. His avant-garde work showcased a different but thrilling way of making theatre while validating area innovators on many levels: in the creation of the art, in the broadening of programming and by showing the flexible possibilities of the form. Its wowed audiences with its poetic images, architectural suggestions and exultant music. The distinctive hallmark of Lepage’s creations is their collaborative shape, which encompasses all aspects of theatre. His experiences with improvisational acting taught him the necessity of having a peripheral consciousness that allows writing acting, set design and stage direction to evolve ‘globally’.

Posted by Marina Walker and Elishia Chave

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