Needles and Opium

by John Stoltenberg

When I left the Eisenhower Theatre last night after witnessing this mesmerizing multimedia marvel, I had a quibble. I had just one, but it could be the most peculiar cavil I’ve ever had about a show.  There was a problem with the curtain call. Something was off. As actors typically do after performing in live theater, the three in this cast came out on stage to be greeted by the audience’s applause—which in this case was very well deserved; they were excellent.  But the set needed to take a bow too. Because that spellbinding construction and the brilliant lighting and projections that shone upon it deserved an ovation all their own, one that would raise the roof.

As it happens, the set very well could have taken a bow. It’s designed to. It tilts and pivots by means of some invisible mechanical/electronic magic. (The same outfit that fabricates Cirque du Soleil apparatus built it.) And it kept me suspended in disbelief and wonder for fully an hour and a half.

It’s deceptively simple to look at until it’s lit and comes to life. It’s the three-sided corner of an imaginary big cube. Each of the sides is by turns a wall or a floor, depending on how the contraption is angled and spun. There are doors and windows and even a murphy bed in the walls, but they’re invisible until they’re opened. And this three-sided set serves as the screen for some of the most amazing scenic and animated projections I have ever seen in theater.

Ever have “the whirlies”?—that disorienting dizziness that takes all the fun out of getting high? If so, you’ll have déjà vu as you experience this ever shifting/pitching/swiveling/slanting space that veers from place to place as in a substance-induced delirium. Except without the nausea. Only wide-eyed awe.

Not incidental to this stupefying sleight of stagecraft, a theme of the show is substance addiction. Written and directed by the world-renowned Canadian theater auteur Robert Lepage, Needles and Opium has three story lines that intersect somewhat surreally: The American trumpeter Miles Davis, who turns to heroin in anguish after a woman rejects him; the French writer Jean Cocteau, who turns to opium out of nonspecific existential torment; and a fictional Québécois voice actor named Robert who is so lovelorn because the woman he loved left him than he chokes up on a take in a recording studio.

Lepage first devised Needles and Opium 20 years ago out of an autobiographical loss not unlike the fictional Robert’s. His conceit in creating it was to evoke a metaphorical connection between the pain he experienced when the love of his life dumped him—a sort of withdrawal from love addition—and the literal substance dependence in the biographies of Davis and Cocteau.

Personally, I didn’t ever buy this premise. It reminded me too much of self-involved great male artists’ tendency to romanticize their solipsism. The women in Needles and Opium are virtual ciphers. We see them only as unreal images, both as Robert’s and Miles’s emotional projections and, in the case of the French film star Davis fixates on, a literal cinematic projection. So unfleshed out are the female roles, in fact,  that when the cast came out for their curtain call—two men and a woman—I had one of those “and who’s she again?” moments.

Maybe I had more than one criticism after all.

So I cannot honestly say, go see this show for the story lines, for the characters you’ll get to know, for their dramatic arcs of realization, for the rich insights into life it will reveal. As a people story, it’s pretty problematic. But go see it for the set. I mean that. The set is epic. It’s the star of this show. And in my mind, which is still reeling from seeing it, I am still applauding.