• Wellesley Robertson III as Miles Davis and Olivier Normand as Jean Cocteau. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Needles and Opium

Miles Davis, Jean Cocteau, and high technology.

Written and directed by Robert Lepage
Starring Olivier Normand, Wellesley Robertson III
American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco, until April 23, 2017
http://www.act-sf.org/

Robert Lepage’s 1991 creative drama of transatlantic love, loss and foreign complications intersperses tales of American jazz trumpeter Miles Davis (1926-1981) (outstanding Wellesley Robertson III) and French writer, playwright and filmmaker, Jean Cocteau (1889 –1963) (marvelous Olivier Normand) with a heartbroken Lepage stand-in, Quebecois actor Robert (also Olivier Normand).

But in addition to these universal themes, Lepage, who directed two shows for Cirque du Soleil, adds fantastical technology and staging that is so powerful at times it overpowers the linked stories. The stage is filled with a large moving half-cube (designed by Carl Fillion, with images by Lionel Arnould) that sits on the stage with the open side facing the audience. With the help of unseen hands, the cube rotates and transmutes into many convincing and artistic sets including Paris hotel rooms, a jazz club, a recording studio and the seamy sides of New York. The actors move acrobatically around and within the cube in unusual positions, occasionally attached only to a semi-hidden wire. The technically adroit and superbly mutable cube, simply dazzles.

“Needles and Opium” follows actor Robert, who flies to Paris in 1989 to record the voice-over for a documentary that explores Miles Davis’s visit to Paris in 1949. But Robert’s recent breakup with his lover is inhibiting his ability to voice the documentary (as are the two unseen dueling producers). Voicing the section about Davis’s sizzling affair with French chanteuse Juliette Gréco makes Robert tear up as he contemplates his own broken heart.

In another scene, the African American Miles Davis is in Paris in 1949, where he enjoys being treated equally by white French artists and intellectuals. When he falls in love with Gréco, he plays a duet with her through a window and flies to join her in her bath. Unwilling to bring his Juliette to segregated New York, he returns alone and depressed, and in despair, turns to heroin. Actor Wellesley Robertson III never utters a word during his entire performance as Davis, yet he is able to convey Davis’s musical talent and heartache admirably, especially when he lies on the ground and extends his arm into a large back-lit image of a heroin needle.

At the same time that Davis is leaving Paris for New York, Jean Cocteau is leaving New York for Paris. While on the long plane ride, Cocteau writes “A Letter to Americans.” He appears on stage periodically to quotes from it and his “Opium, the Diary of a Cure.” Cocteau’s presence in the production, with his heavily accented English, is largely to comment on American society and the artistic power of opium. In one refreshing scene, Cocteau describes his photo-shoot for “Life Magazine.”

Robert, in Paris forty years later, is mourning his lost love, and more prosaically, tries hypnotherapy, not heroin. His phone call with his now-brusque former lover is made more poignant by Olivier Normand’s acting skill, over and above the content of the familiar painful conversation we have all suffered through at one time or another.

“Needles and Opium” is accompanied by an impressively clear soundtrack of Davis’s soulful trumpet (by music and sound designer Jean Sébastien Côté), coordinated and acted so well by actor Robertson, that one almost believes that Robertson is blowing the horn.

It’s a pleasure to recommend “Needles and Opium.” It’s a rare treat to see fabulous technical prowess accompanying moving tales of love and loss.

Emily S. Mendel
emilymendel@gmail.com

©Emily S. Mendel 2017 All Rights Reserved

San Francisco,
Emily S. Mendel, a writer and photographer, has been a regular contributor to culturevulture.net since 2006, where she reviews theater, art, film, television and destinations. Ending her 30-year law practice has given Ms. Mendel the time to indulge in her love of travel and the arts, and to serve as the theater reviewer for berkeleyside.com.