By Lori Bosworth
Intoxicated and trippy: That is how Canadian Stage‘s latest production, the English-language premiere of Robert Lepage’s Needles and Opium will leave you feeling. Focusing on legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis during his trip to Paris in 1949 and French poet Jean Cocteau’s concurrent visit to the States, this all-out production recognizes the innovations of both artists through a salute that is high tech with glitz and glamour.
This potent cocktail of creativity did not come without pitfalls. Both Davis and Cocteau became addicted to drugs (heroin and opium respectively), in an attempt to mask painful experiences. Davis, who introduced bebop to the continent, and whose recording sessions in 1949 would later be released on LP as Birth of the Cool, found life in Paris more socially liberating than back home and became the lover of white French singer Juliette Greco. Cocteau, a bisexual poet, novelist and filmmaker who counted Proust, Picasso and Modigliani as friends, experienced relationship heartbreaks as well that led him to sooth his soul with narcotics.
Needles and Opium is a series of vignettes that focuses individually on Davis and Cocteau as they navigate their newly adopted cities and vices and continues forty years later with a Québécois writer in a Paris hotel lamenting his broken relationship and considering the value of life. The three artists are connected of course through their pain and dependence on external objects to help them survive.
As Jean Cocteau, Marc Labrèche’s comedic timing is as sharp as broken glass, especially when he’s trying to get an “Anglais” telephone operator to understand which number he wants to dial. Of course it helps that Lepage’s script contains dialogue that is succinct and without excess. Yet, it’s Labrèche’s interpretation of material that is more sensitive that really showcases his depth. Wellesley Robertson III as Davis effectively evokes the angst and enthusiasm of the jazz visionary in a non-speaking role, which preserves Davis’s mystique. Robertson’s movements are at times ethereal.
Set designer Carl Fillion’s dazzling stage features an open-ended cube suspended above the stage projected with scenes of buzzing New York City life and Parisian jazz clubs in a successful attempt to create a psychedelic experience. The actors perform in the cube and then slip off on to the stage. Kudos to both actors for the acrobatic moves they mastered in order to navigate the cubic stage.
Jean-Sébastien Côté’s sumptuous soundtrack features offerings from Davis’s cool jazz period in the late 40s and fuse perfectly with Lionel Arnould’s images of the iconic cities.
Canadian Stage’s Needles and Opium has a short run at the St. Lawrence Centre, Bluma Appel Theatre, 27 Front Street East from November 22, 2013 to December 1, 2013 so hurry and get your tickets for this not-to-be missed production. Tickets may be purchased online.