BWW Review: NEEDLES AND OPIUM Showcases High Level of Creativity at Kennedy Center
The Kennedy Center's Spotlight on Directors series, curated by Alicia Adams, gets off to a strong start with Robert Lepage's NEEDLES AND OPIUM. Produced by Canada's Ex Machina - a multidisciplinary company that Writer/Director Lepage founded in 1994 - the play explores how pain informs artistic creativity. At the same time, it considers the power of addiction, both to love and illicit substances.
Three individuals, separated by geographic space and sometimes time, grapple with addiction. French writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau depends on opium. American jazz musician Miles Davis is addicted to heroin. This addiction, and the pain they deal with in their lives, informs their artistic and/or creative pursuits. Years later, a man from Quebec travels to a historic hotel in Paris to forget a terrible breakup he had and recalls Mr. Cocteau and Mr. Davis' struggle with addiction of a different sort. Images and sounds from their highly-lauded work fill his hotel room and we're instantly transported to their worlds.
According to the program notes, NEEDLES AND OPIUM was first produced twenty years ago, but this new production includes some new elements, including new scenography (Carl Fillion), original images (designed by Lionel Arnould), and a talented acrobat (Wellesley Robertson III, portraying, among others, Miles Davis). While not specifically stated as new, Jean-Sébastien Côté's enchanting music and sound design work is also prominently featured. These technical elements, and how they seamlessly work together to create a magical and beautiful picture onstage and an immersive theatrical experience, are reason enough to see the show. As there are two more performances, I won't spoil the myriad of illusions that Lepage and his team include in the production, but suffice it to say that - production-wise, this show is unlike any other I've seen come through this illustrious arts center in years.
However, it's important to stress that the technical creativity we see is not just for the sake of technical creativity. As much of the story deals with the power of art and emotions of all kinds, the technical elements bring the audience into what each character is feeling and the world they inhabit. At the center of it all is a wonderful performance by Olivier Normand as both the lonely man and Jean Cocteau. Whether on the ground or in the air (yes, you read that right), he demonstrates his uncanny ability to use all of the tools at his disposal - including a tremendous ability to interpret meaningful text in a natural way - to bring us into his characters' world filled with darkness and despair. It's a tour-de-force performance that must be seen.
While there are some slow moments in the 95-minute production, text-wise, there's enough to retain interest at all times due to the polished creativity on display.
NEEDLES AND OPIUM began performances on March 16, 2017 at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC and has two more performances today, March 18. For tickets, call the box office at 202-467-4600 or purchase them online. Running Time: 95 minutes with no intermission.
Photo: Olivier Normand picture; courtesy of Kennedy Center Press Office