The opening image of Eonnagata, the latest production from Ex Machina, Robert Lepage’s company that premiered recently at the Sony Centre, reminded me of a seminal moment of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, the opera that begins the Ring cycle. We see Donner the thunder god summon a thunderstorm by means of a powerful hammer-stroke. At this moment Donner is godlike because he is probably the first character in the history of stagecraft to be seen onstage moving in unity with the mise-en-scene, striking the stage with his hammer, causing an explosion of sound in the orchestra and a bolt of lightning.
How could Lepage not be influenced by his immersion in Wagner and opera? Although Eonnagata concerns a cross-dressing diplomat who really existed in history rather than a norse god, nonetheless, there was Lepage himself playing god, wielding a sword that resembled an 18th century light-sabre. Every strong gesture was punctuated by flashes of light and powerful sounds. While the work was Lepage’s text, not Wagner’s, the unified effect was as Wagnerian as the opera seen at the Met last month. How wonderful to see such an easy sense of mastery on display, at a moment of such vulnerability, self-disclosure and confession. His power at the outset curiously served to put us at ease.
What’s in a name? “Eonnagata” is a compound of Eon, part of the name of Charles de Beaumont, Chevalier d’Éon, and “Onnagata”, the cross-dressing Kabuki performer (usually a male actor who would play a woman).
Light and design and movement all supported this uncommon exploration. At times it seemed to be a monologue, as if three different performers stepped into the role of Beaumont, or contrived to represent Beaumont from several aspects at once. On a few rare occasions – as in the encounter between Beaumont and Pierre de Beaumarchais (the playwright who gave us Figaro)—we observed two objective characters onstage, but most of the evening appeared to be an exploration of Beaumont all by him/herself.
Lepage appeared to subdivide the dramatic figure among his cast (two men: Lepage and dancer/choreographer Russell Maliphant, and Sylvie Guillem). At times all three were asked to move as dancers. The movements required of Lepage were never as taxing as those for the trained bodies of Maliphant & Guillem, although at times all three moved in a very simple style that largely levelled the playing field, such that we were often unaware of the discrepancy in the physical virtuosity of those onstage.
The historical figure of Beaumont is fabulous material, giving Lepage an opportunity to explore the construction of gender and identity. Mirrors figure prominently, sometimes employing a mirrored surface with a doppelganger of the opposite gender pretending for awhile to be a mirror image even as the genders didn’t match, or matching then breaking the mirror effect. This was as playfully subversive as when Harpo Marx did it.
At another moment a hoop skirt is used as a kind of net, to snare the free-spirited woman who has until that moment been uncontained. When Lepage threw the skirt over top of Sylvie Guillem (both, please note, portraying aspects of Beaumont!), snaring her in the enclosure of women’s clothes, it’s as if the choice were the snare, something we sometimes see as an external imposition. But such choices can just as easily be seen as a person’s choice, as part of their internal conversation. At this moment at least, Beaumont was sub-divided among the available players, so that all three represented aspects of the one character.
Some of Lepage’s trademark devices re-appear. We get slow motion movement, sometimes reminiscent of butoh. We see figures move at bizarre and oblique angles on surfaces at strange angles, just as we saw figures crawling or walking along walls as if they were insects in the COC Erwartung and again in the Met’s Damnation de Faust, and sliding down slopes in Das Rheingold.
Puppets and masks figure throughout in various ways. In some cases the figure is hoisted on strings or other devices –visible or invisible—behaving at times like a puppet (the soldiers climbing the walls in Damnation de Faust, or the Rhine maidens swimming on strings in Das Rheingold). Humans are made to appear tiny next to an oversize puppet, reminiscent of the climactic effect in The Nightingale.
On two different occasions we saw an oversize ceremonial kabuki costume, with a very impersonal mask; underneath a normal sized human emerged as if being born from the inside of this puppet. The effect was repeated using shadow puppetry, allowing us to see a different sort of detail, but the same disparity of scale between the giant puppet and the human playing the role. At one point the puppet appears to be male but a female emerges. Such surprising turnabouts of apparent gender occur frequently throughout the work. Surprise and disorientation are a logical dramaturgical choice, in expressing a world split into arbitrary genders; the subtext for Lepage’s gentle dissection of Beaumont is to suggest that gender is merely an arbitrary construct, a series of signs that we decode in a particular way. While Beaumont in a sense is a figure who would probably be far more comfortable in our own century, i couldn’t help feeling that Lepage is still ahead of his time with this exploration, and that his visual vocabulary could play a useful role in helping to explicate the ambiguities of this category we understand as “gender”.
As usual Ex Machina offer their usual heavy emphasis on brilliant mise-en-scène, almost to the exclusion of the performer. The actor / singer / dancer always must be reconciled to the exquisite presentation, complex lighting, tromp l’oeil effects, which often appear to be the main objective rather than tools in the service of the text & the performance.
I understand from my online reading –Lepage has given interviews of course—that there is a personal and even auto-biographical component to Eonnagata. As an artist poised between two languages & cultures, there are several ways that Lepage reminds me of Beaumont.
The work is a series of small moments, scenes, dances, effects, that are virtual meditations upon gender. Those who come to a theatrical work that is so static—and by that I don’t mean lacking in motion, but rather, an absence of dramatic action—may be troubled that so little seems to happen. Thank God. The brilliance of so much great theatre of the last half century is precisely in the rejection of actantial models of theatre, and the celebration of immanent beauty: that is, the sensuous experience in the here and now.
Charles de Beaumont is a remarkable subject for theatrical exploration considering that the actual gender is not known for certain; we know that in early life Beaumont was accepted as male, while later in life, the French Government accepted Beaumont’s requests to come home on the premise that the he had all along been a she. Upon her death, an autopsy seemed to show that Beaumont was a male after all. But in the magic of this presentation such questions are moot. Gender is a profound mystery of aesthetics & human perception, worthy of such probing investigation. My one regret is that I cannot return to the deep and poetic images of this work, to ponder, meditate, and rethink. I hope we once again meet all these several portrayals of Beaumont, seen in Eonnagata, whether in a live incarnation or on video. There is much beauty here to celebrate.
Eonnagata appears again Nov 19th at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts