The Dragons’ Trilogy

Theatre Repere

at the UIC Theatre

In this year’s International Theatre Festival, the third so far, certain weaknesses have begun to emerge. It has become apparent, for instance, that festival directors Jane and Bernie Sahlins share a pronounced weakness for epics. The Sahlinses helped bring an eight-and-a-half-hour Nicholas Nickleby to Chicago in 1983, and now they’ve made marathons a sort of signature for the festival–most notably with the 1988 English Shakespeare Company production of “The Wars of the Roses”: a cycle of seven history plays running from Richard II, through three Henrys, to Richard III, which took only slightly less time to see than it took for the wars themselves to be fought.

The Sahlinses also seem to go in for splashy, rangy vaudevilles like the one Spain’s Comediants brought to the festival in 1988. Rough, wild, self-consciously homemade, but at the same time exquisite in its use of Bread-and-Puppet-like visual images and physical skills, the Comediants show impressed Bernie Sahlins so much that he more or less bought the company: his own short-lived troupe, the Willow Street Carnival, was reportedly modeled on the Comediants.

All that being so, Theatre Repere’s The Dragons’ Trilogy must have played like a sweet dream to Jane and Bernie–combining, the way it does, epic length and sprawl with gorgeous visual language, strong physicality, and a gentle, New Vaudevillian sense of fun. This show embodies the quintessence of the Sahlinses’ Theatre Festival taste.

And that taste is fairly delicate, all in all. Developed collaboratively by an ensemble of French Canadian artists under the direction of Robert Lepage, The Dragons’ Trilogy seems a little uncomfortable with itself as an epic. The narrative seems too inward, too intimate to warrant the grand treatment. Whereas the “Wars of the Roses” cycle gave us the intrigues and atrocities of two great houses vying for control over a kingdom, The Dragons’ Trilogy offers petty crimes, minor tragedies, and transitory joys perpetrated by and upon a few obscure families as they stumble across 20th-century Canada.

Not that their crimes, tragedies, and joys aren’t interesting. The trilogy opens in Quebec City in the 30s, with two French Canadian cousins, Jeanne and Francoise, growing up in a poor neighborhood bordering on Chinatown. Jeanne’s father is Morin: a taciturn, alcoholic barber who borrows money from everybody–even Mr. Wong, the old immigrant Chinese laundryman who cleans his sheets. Mr. Wong has a few vices of his own, of course, including a passion for opium and poker, which he indulges in the deepest, darkest recesses of the laundry’s basement.

Wong also has a son, Lee, who has yet to marry and produce the heir old Wong desperately wants to see before he dies. Before he can even allow himself to die.

Fortune smiles on Wong, in a grotesque way, when Jeanne gets pregnant by a local boy and Morin coincidentally finds his way to the old man’s gaming table. In a powerful if not always intelligible passage, Wong helps Morin wager and lose what little he has: his money, his barber shop, and finally his daughter. Won at poker, Jeanne and her baby become Lee’s wife and child. And Wong can die in peace.

The second third of the play takes us to Toronto in the 40s and 50s, where a diffident but loving Lee shares an apartment with Jeanne and their red-haired daughter, Stella, who suffers seizures that will eventually destroy her mind. Japan, meanwhile, is rising in the east: We watch a geisha suffer, Madame Butterfly-like, through an affair with an American officer. We meet a young woman whose mother died at Hiroshima. Cousin Francoise goes to war, comes back, learns a skill, and has a baby.

Which leads us to the final third, set in contemporary Vancouver, where Francoise’s boy, Pierre, falls in love with Yukali, a young Japanese Canadian woman descended–though, I’ll tell you, I’m not sure exactly how–from the geisha and the A-bomb victim in part two.

And which, in turn, completes a sort of a circle: The sick, sad, abortive initial confrontation between Asian and European cultures–the Wong/Morin horror–replaced, maybe even transcended by the sweet and solid new union between Pierre and Yukali. This sense of completion is emphasized by the stunningly evoked death of William Crawford, a Hong Kong-born English Canadian who never quite joins the action of the play, but follows it–escorts it, you might say–from beginning to end: a witness, a symbol, a specter, an eminence grise in Theatre Repere’s drama of acculturation.

This is definitely a vision worthy of an epic. But like I say, the terms in which it’s given are anything but heroic. The loves and losses incurred by three generations of essentially average folks don’t in themselves evoke the grandeur of History and Fate. At least not over a period of about six hours they don’t. Even Arthur Miller realized he couldn’t let Willy Loman’s tragedy take more than two.

The bagginess of the fit is most obvious in the second third of the trilogy, which basically functions as a long, long transition from part one to three. As necessary as it is in terms of narrative structure, part two isn’t innately all that fascinating.

What saves it–what saves the whole huge endeavor, ironically enough–is the visual poetry in which the story swims. The Comediant approach. Deeply grounded in dance, Lepage and company create more than images, they create a complete physical language: a series of symbolic gestures brought together in sequence to communicate an entire metaphorical thought. An old leather bag becomes the means to recount a life. Coins and an umbrella offer a succinct fable. Shoe boxes become a town. And soldiers in ice skates, of all things, impart the bravado and terror of war.

Like the Comediants, Theatre Repere never forgets that story telling is artifice and that artifice is fun. The ensemble plays with and subverts images as much as it exalts them. But images are ultimately a very serious business in The Dragons’ Trilogy. Quite aside from their occasionally great beauty, it’s they that supply the resonance that gives the trilogy its epic breadth. That brings out the hopeful, historic motion implicit in all these little melodramas, and makes the show worth watching for an afternoon and a night.