Marc Lebrèche, who hosts a satirical news show in his native Canada, has been called Quebec’s answer to Jon Stewart. But a few years ago the successful actor was yearning to return to his roots in the theater.
He was talking to a friend, Lynda Beaulieu, sister of visionary Canadian theatrical auteur Robert Lepage, and he casually mentioned the deep and abiding love he still had for “Needles and Opium,” a seminal solo show that Lepage had created in 1991. Lebrèche had subsequently performed the piece on tour for several years in the early to mid-’90s, and it still remained firmly lodged in the Québécois actor’s mind two decades later.
While he adored performing the show, he told Lepage’s sister that there were parts of the character he still wanted to explore. Two weeks later, Lepage himself rang up Lebrèche and asked if he was serious about reviving the show. The experimental director of hypnotic visual feasts like “The Far Side of the Moon” and “The Andersen Project” told him that he had wanted to fix and rework aspects of the piece that had been nagging him for years.
“I think there’s still things that I can do with the show, and I want to revisit it,” Lebrèche recalls Lepage saying. “So if you’re serious about it and willing to go for it, let’s do it.”
Little did Lebrèche know the wholesale changes Lepage and his Canadian theater company, Ex Machina, had in store for “Needles and Opium,” which ArtsEmerson is presenting at the Cutler Majestic Theatre April 9-12.
While Lepage tweaked the story and script for the second go-round, it’s the physical world of the show, its scenic design and images, that have been most dramatically re-imagined. It’s also not a solo piece anymore. A new onstage character, jazz legend Miles Davis, who was a ghost-like figure in the original production, has been added, brought to life (sans dialogue) by actor Wellesley Robertson III.
The original 1991 production featured a large revolving movie screen onto which images were projected, with the performer hanging from a harness in front of the screen. In the new version, which was first remounted in Canada in 2013, the entire show takes place largely inside a tilted, three-walled cube hanging in the middle of the stage, which spins in a slow, nearly constant motion. One critic called it “an MC Escher painting come to life.” Indeed, elaborate, technically complex sets, are commonplace for Lepage, who mounted a production of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle at the Metropolitan Opera in 2012 featuring a 45-ton “machine” with 24 moving planks that shape-shifted into mountains and river banks.
At times, the cube appears to be floating in midair against a starry sky. The performers — Lebrèche and Robertson — are suspended from harnesses inside the rotating cube, navigating between its three walls and appearing and disappearing from hidden doors and windows that pop open and abruptly close. Images projected onto the walls of the cube morph the story’s locations from a Parisian boulevard to a hotel room to a recording studio or concert hall. The dazzling visual sequences keep coming at you, one after another.
“It’s a warmer, deeper, and more sensual experience than it was 20 years ago,” said Lebrèche in a phone interview from his home in Montreal. “When we did it the first time, it was very experimental in its form. There is still a kind of strange, poetic feel to this version, but it’s more sensual and less intellectual, maybe because there’s two human bodies on stage now.”
The story, such as it is, was sparked by a historical coincidence — in 1949, famed French filmmaker and writer Jean Cocteau traveled across the Atlantic to New York City at the same time that Miles Davis was journeying in the opposite direction to Paris.
Still mourning the death of his lover, Cocteau was high on opium and battling addiction. Meanwhile Davis became the toast of Paris’s intellectual and artist communities and fell in love with the French actress and singer Juliette Gréco. But he felt that he couldn’t marry her or bring her back to the States because of his reluctance to expose her to prejudicial views on mixed-race marriages. Returning to New York, Davis drowned his despair in what became a crippling heroin addiction, a descent brought to life in an acrobatic aerial ballet that sees the actor careening through traffic and leaping from a rooftop to a pawn shop in the blink of an eye.
Lepage blends up those true tales with a third fictional story of a Québecois actor named Robert (Lebrèche), who travels to Paris to record a voice-over for a documentary about Davis and Gréco. Residing in the same room at the Hôtel La Louisiane where Gréco used to stay and nursing a broken heart after having been left by his lover, Robert struggles to complete his job (his voice keeps cracking). He attempts hypnosis and acupuncture therapy as a way to get back on track and heal from his loss of his severed relationship.
“Needles and Opium” grapples with heartbreak, loss, and creativity. All three characters, Lebrèche says, can be seen as addicts. Each is struggling with a different kind of addiction, whether it’s to drugs, love, or the creative process.
Some of the questions the show raises, Lebrèche says, include: “Do we have to be an addictive personality to be creative? Do we have to suffer to be creative? And how can we still be free and happy going through a creative experience or an experience of falling passionately in love?”
Lebrèche, 54, who Canada’s Globe and Mail calls “a performer capable of both extremely subtle emoting and high-flying theatrics,” says that Lepage wasn’t interested in the romantic idea of the suffering creative genius, the need for a performer or artist to suffer for his art.
“It’s more about questioning the addiction process, actually. The creative process, it’s like an addiction itself, an addiction to our dreams. We sometimes have to let go.”
Lepage, who has a poetic sensibility and a lush visual vocabulary, creates shows that are wildly imaginative. So oftentimes, Lebrèche says, the sly, mischievous humor of his work gets overlooked — as do his innate storytelling instincts.
“The scenery and images are so strong in his work that it’s like going to the museum and seeing one great piece after another,” Lebrèche said. “But his main goal is always to find a way to narrate a good story and make it work.”
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at email@example.com.