Review: ‘Needles and Opium’ at The Kennedy Center

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Sometimes the viewer of a theatrical experience can only sit in wonder at the spectacle, not because elephants dance on soccer balls or trapeze artists spiral on silken threads, but because actors sit on ceilings while quoting Sartre’s Nausea and dialing 911 (metaphorically).

Olivier Normand and Wellesley Robertson III in ‘Needles and Opium.’ Photo by Tristram Kenton.

Such a theatrical experience is Robert Lepage’s Needles and Opium, the first of The Kennedy Center’s Spotlight on Directors series that opened last night at the Eisenhower Theatre. And it is an experience that you’ll long remember.

Robert Lepage hails from Quebec where in 1994 he inaugurated Ex Machina, not so much a theatre as a multidisciplinary performance company that blends, or rather juxtaposes, dance, acting, film, music, graphics, hallucination, designers, writers… into a fierce blend of expression.

Needles and Opium, Lepage’s first production (1991), has here been remounted, and reconceived, for a more 21st century audience.

It is based on the intersection of three lives: the autobiographical “Robert”, the jazz legend Miles Davis, and the great writer/theatre artist/filmmaker Jean Cocteau.

Olivier Normand in ‘Needles and Opium.’ Photo by Tristram Kenton.

Following an intense breakup with a lover, Robert travels to New York to produce the narrative to a documentary film on Miles Davis and his lifelong love relationship with Juliette Greco. Meanwhile, as Davis travels to Paris to encounter France and Greco for the first time, Jean Cocteau goes to New York for the first time, to experience the city–yes, but more importantly to experience jazz and its immortal horn.

The theatrical experience itself does not take place so much on the Eisenhower stage as above it, in or above a three-dimensional open-ended cube, that rotates leaving the actors and, hence, the action, at times at impossible angles.

There is Robert’s hotel room, the same hotel room Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir lived in during the 1940s. Here, Robert, an anguish-riddled Olivier Normand, can’t stop reuniting with his ex-lover.

There is Miles’ bleak Paris room. Here, Miles, a silent Wellesley Robertson III, exudes his fierce solitude, as fierce as any trumpet solo. His embrace in a bathtub in which Juliette Greco awaits is perhaps the most spectacular “descent” I’ve ever witnessed on stage.

Olivier Normand in ‘Needles and Opium.’ Photo by Tristram Kenton.

And then there is the incomparable Jean Cocteau, all poetry and wonder, portrayed by the same Olivier Normand. Normand’s transformations between the two characters is as effortless as it is complete.

Accompanying these fabulous performances, however, is the work on Lepage’s design team: Carl Fillion (sets), Claudia Gendreau (props), Jean-Sébastian Côté (music and sound), Bruno Matte (lights), François St-Aubin (costumes), and Lionel Arnold (images). This team ultimately puts together the mystically alluring spectacle that constitutes Needles and Opium. It is the space this team constructs and in which the actors inhabit, that is the performance, a performance that is as much about the anguish of solitude as it is about the wonder of art.

For Lepage’s work is lyrical drama at its finest. Rooted in a story of love, the production explodes that story and takes its audience not on a narrative journey of recovery, but rather plunges us into the mysterious depths at the heart of the story’s anguish. Within those depths we don’t drown or come up for air; rather, we surrender and revel.

For we all know that art and love are intertwined: love of people and love of art bring both to fruition, and the greater the love the greater the birth pains.

Needles and Opium lays that cliché to rest, however; love of people is all there is.

And all there will ever be.

Running Time: 95 minutes, without an intermission.

Needles and Opium plays through March 18, 2017, at The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater—2700 F St NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.

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