If you're touring a performance piece about inner and outer space that is set in the past and present and in a hospital, an airplane, a bar, a laundromat, two college seminar rooms, two apartments, and other locales, what do you pack?
For Robert Lepage's The Far Side of the Moon, you would pack 18 sliding panels that serve as a projection surface, each weighing 30lbs and easy to move, three projectors, four cameras, and an 8'×36' mirror — okay, it weighs a ton, but it's Lexan and won't shatter. You'd take just one actor who transforms so seamlessly from character to character that you would swear there were at least three performers in the one-man piece. And you'd take a few simple props — and double cast them, too.
Every element of this show transforms in wildly imaginative ways. “The mirror is rotated on a shaft so it can swivel,” says Patrick Durnin, technical director for Lepage's company, Ex Machina. It becomes a gym wall, a bar counter, and a seminar room ceiling. As it moves, it sometimes creates a silver metallic bright glare, then appears to fold in on itself dramatically. “The blinding effect of the fluorescent light can be surprising when mixed with mirror rotation,” Durnin explains.
The basic set consists of the panels, onto which round washer and dryer doors are attached. The panels spread apart to create the strong impression of elevator and closet doors in different scenes, and they are portable, so these circles appear in different places. A rear projection screen behind each door allows them to be, at turns, a clock, airplane window, goldfish bowl, TV, brain scan machine, eye of a young patient, and a womb through which a baby puppet appears, complete with umbilical cord; a puppeteer behind the stage manipulates images for the TV and airplane.
“All projection is from video output, even the still images,” says Durnin, adding that it is important that the media fit the projection surface and shape. “Video projectors are set on a dolly like we usually do for a camera. That way, we can have different image configurations with few projectors.” (Ex Machina encountered another challenge, the need to block out unwanted light from the video projector, and found a solution that can either gradually mask or almost instantly blackout a projector's output. A detailed description is available on the company's website: www.exmachina.qc.ca.)
The use of live video feed creates the illusion that an actor crawls into the dryer and spins with clothes and, later, that an astronaut floats in space. The actor, originally Lepage, Yves Jacques on the tour, appears as two brothers who drive the story and every minor character, except those played by a puppet and an ironing board.
Standing upright in a dim light, facing upstage and dressed from behind, the ironing board excels in the role of a patient in a doctor's office. It also appears as an exercise bike when upside down, a doctor's table upright, a motorcycle, and, well, an ironing board.
Costumes transform too, sometimes hiding within one another. A man's bathrobe, for instance, covers his mother's dress. The actor “has five seconds to change and only one dresser. There is no time to go to the dressing room, and there are always six people back stage, including a puppeteer, a TD, and stage hands,” says Durnin.
“It may look simple, but what is difficult scene by scene and trick by trick is that when you move one piece, you have to make sure all the others will follow. If you move a panel, you move the upstage projection screen, then the projection rail, and the fire curtain goes down. Even when they aren't physically attached, they're all intertwined. You have only one set of lenses, and they aren't zoom,” he adds. “But as a tech crew, when you come on, you're always amazed. You're never sorry, even when it is difficult.”
I guess it should be noted that what you are reading is as much an illusion as an ironing board that poses as a person, a way of looking at what Lepage did. Lepage didn't come up with these ideas to solve a touring problem, but to help convey an idea. Earthlings, after all, see only one side of the moon, and the Lepage piece, about a man's search for meaning in a mysterious universe, is also about how perspective affects objects. By using props in so many different ways, he surprises us with the multiple possibilities and meanings of things, allowing us to go on our own journey of theatrical space.
But it's likely that using few props in many ways is helpful when the company tours, as it did most recently when the American Repertory Theatre brought this show to Cambridge, MA, and the University Musical Society presented it in Ann Arbor, MI. And the idea of double casting props may have implications for other designers and directors who want to simplify in order to tour or solve a budget crisis.
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