It’s so much easier to really dig into a review for something you love or hate than something you were indifferent about. That’s how I feel about The Blue Dragon, Rober Lepage’s current show at the Barbican. He’s the kind of guy I read about in college, a really snazzy director who Does Cool Stuff, and I had high hopes for this show, especially since I’ve been a sinophile for years and was looking forward to a chance to take my Chinese language skills for a walk and maybe learn a little bit more about “the effervescent paradox that is modern China.”
Well, fiddle-dee-dee to that. While the show had nods to Chinese opera, dance, calligraphy, and customs, it was ultimately just about a French Canadian couple having their own mid-life crises: in short, a “Lifetime ‘Television for Women’” movie presented as a play. The Chinese characters (there was one, Xiao Ling, played by Tai Wei Foo) were seen through their eyes; for him (Pierre, Robert Lepage), as a focus for his lust and ambition; for her (Claire, Marie Michaud), as a producer of the child she wants. Pierre criticizes Claire for wanting a Chinese daughter to be a “pretty little doll that will perform for you, ” but neither of them treat Xiao Ling like anything more than a doll herself. And to me, this play, “about” China, supposedly about modern China, treated it entirely as set dressing for a story that could have been set anywhere. The problem with rich (white) people seeing children from poor (non-white) countries as a commodity was wholly ignored; the question of freedom of expression (or lack of) for Chinese artists was a one-liner; the push-and-pull between a couple severed by decades, or even between a couple (Pierre and Xiao Ling) who have a third party come between them, there was nothing of what could have made this a compelling human drama or something that really illuminated what is going on in modern China.
What we did get was some serious eye candy, mostly in the form of projections that followed the actors perfectly on stage, but also as snow, fish, paintings, and other forms of set dressing. In addition to this, there’s no denying that the sound and lighting design were, as near as I can tell, flawless. It was an ideal play to bring a horde of theater students to show them just what you can do technically (and all within a two hour time frame). It’s just a pity that so much effort was expended in the service of such an empty play.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, February 17th, 2011. Blue Dragon continues through February 26th. The play is about 30% Chinese, 50% French, and 20% English.)