Mellow to a Fault
the opioid haze of Needles and Opium

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Needles and Opium does not have many needles, or, for that matter, much opium.. Instead, the needles and the opium are an aside, a metaphor for the heartbreak, loss, and longing that connect the characters Robert, Miles Davis, Jean Cocteau. and Robert. These strings that bind them are flimsy at best, in a dispassionate script that leaves Davis (Wellesley Robertson II), with no lines and Cocteau and Robert, presumably a fictionalized version of playwright and director Robert Lepage, (Olivier Normand), with too many. Despite the confusing and cumbersome script, Robertson and Normand’s acting fill the confines of the fantastic, groundbreaking set suspended in space that is the play’s best asset.

The entire performance takes place within a cube suspended on the stage, with a slew of doors, windows, and talented crew members that permit the entry, exit, and suspension of the two actors. Bruno Matte, lighting designer, and Carl Fillion, scenic designer, are the true talents of Needles and Opium. Thanks to perfectly placed projections and optical illusion transitions, the cube transforms from Paris hotel rooms to New York pawn shops to the boundaries of outer space. These melds, the ever-jazzy soundtrack, and Davis’ physical rather than verbal characterization and narrative, make Needles and Opium feel more like a visual meditation on loss and discovery than a play about drugs. Especially poignant parallel scenes illuminate Davis’ transition into despair after leaving his Parisian lover Juliette Greco behind in Paris, due to fear of how their interracial marriage would be perceived in America. Early in the play, Davis sits the the bottom edge of the cube, cleaning and assembling the pieces of his trumpet on a low table before him. The trumpet pieces and his knowing fingers at work are projected in shadow on the top of the cube. Near the end of the play, Davis returns to this set-up. This time, instead of lovingly preparing his trumpet to play, he prepares heroin, a spoon, and a needle to escape his sorrow.

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Despite Davis’ silent performance, his scenes capture a mystical allure of wandering. Robert’s present day narrative often fills in the details of Davis’ 1950s challenges, which helps contextualize Davis’ motivations. For example, Robert narrates a French-American documentary about Davis and Greco, in a humorous scene where Normand’s ability to hold the audience’s laughter and rapture is at full force. Normand is tasked with the unique challenge of delivering every line in the play, as both French poet-playwright-filmmaker-artist-Renaissance man Jean Cocteau, and Robert. Both characters grieve the loss of love: Cocteau to a lover’s death and Robert to a break-up. However, the similarities in their stories often blur the lines between the characters. This confusion seems more a fault of the script than of Normand’s acting, as he does his best with the disconnected smattering of a storyline given to Cocteau.

In spite of its issues, Needles and Opium is a unique theatrical experience that sparks daydreams and wonder. The rotating, three-dimensional cube pushes the bounds of stagecraft and perception, and the acrobatics performed by both the actors and crew lie somewhere between a magic show and an exhibition of technical impossibility—in the slower moments of the narrative, I found myself deeply focused on asking, “How did they do that?” Though the questions posed by Needles and Opium were often ones of determining what was happening in the story, they were also ones of fascination and bewilderment. The play ultimately delivers a technical and visual spectacle unlike any other theater performance. It may not be a traditional or successful narrative, but it is certainly a sensory and unique theatrical experience.

Images courtesy of Nicola Frank Vachon and Tristram Kenton

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