Magic Time! ‘Needles and Opium’ at The Kennedy Center

When I left the Eisenhower Theater last night after witnessing this mesmerizing multimedia marvel, I had a quibble. I had just one, but it could be the most peculiar cavil I’ve ever had about a show.  There was a problem with the curtain call. Something was off. As actors typically do after performing in live theater, the three in this cast came out on stage to be greeted by the audience’s applause—which in this case was very well deserved; they were excellent. But the set needed to take a bow too. Because that spellbinding construction and the brilliant lighting and projections that shone upon it deserved an ovation all their own, one that would raise the roof.

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

As it happens, the set very well could have taken a bow. It’s designed to. It tilts and pivots by means of some invisible mechanical/electronic magic. (The same outfit that fabricates Cirque du Soleil apparatus built it.) And it kept me suspended in disbelief and wonder for fully an hour and a half.

It’s deceptively simple to look at until it’s lit and comes to life. It’s the three-sided corner of an imaginary big cube. Each of the sides is by turns a wall or a floor, depending on how the contraption is angled and spun. There are doors and windows and even a murphy bed in the walls, but they’re invisible until they’re opened. And this three-sided set serves as the screen for some of the most amazing scenic and animated projections I have ever seen in theater.

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

Ever have “the whirlies”?—that disorienting dizziness that takes all the fun out of getting high? If so, you’ll have déjà vu as you experience this ever shifting/pitching/swiveling/slanting space that veers from place to place as in a substance-induced delirium. Except without the nausea. Only wide-eyed awe.

Not incidental to this stupefying sleight of stagecraft, a theme of the show is substance addiction. Written and directed by the world-renowned Canadian theater auteur Robert Lepage, Needles and Opium has three story lines that intersect somewhat surreally: The American trumpeter Miles Davis, who turns to heroin in anguish after a woman rejects him; the French writer Jean Cocteau, who turns to opium out of nonspecific existential torment; and a fictional Québécois voice actor named Robert who is so lovelorn because the woman he loved left him than he chokes up on a take in a recording studio.

Lepage first devised Needles and Opium 20 years ago out of an autobiographical loss not unlike the fictional Robert’s. His conceit in creating it was to evoke a metaphorical connection between the pain he experienced when the love of his life dumped him—a sort of withdrawal from love addition—and the literal substance dependence in the biographies of Davis and Cocteau.

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

Personally, I didn’t ever buy this premise. It reminded me too much of self-involved great male artists’ tendency to romanticize their solipsism. The women in Needles and Opium are virtual ciphers. We see them only as unreal images, both as Robert’s and Miles’s emotional projections and, in the case of the French film star Davis fixates on, a literal cinematic projection. So unfleshed out are the female roles, in fact, that when the cast came out for their curtain call—two men and a woman—I had one of those “and who’s she again?” moments.

Maybe I had more than one criticism after all.

So I cannot honestly say, go see this show for the story lines, for the characters you’ll get to know, for their dramatic arcs of realization, for the rich insights into life it will reveal. As a people story, it’s pretty problematic. But go see it for the set. I mean that. The set is epic. It’s the star of this show. And in my mind, which is still reeling from seeing it, I am still applauding.

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.

Review: ‘Needles and Opium’ at The Kennedy Center by Robert Michael Oliver

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.


  1. The mystery of the third (female) cast member is solved:

    She was in the bathtub on the stage floor centerstage luring Miles Davis to join her.

    Only the top of her head was visible to the audience.

    She was probably also the stage manager or ASM.

    Amazing production…so glad I opted to attend….


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