The Seven Streams of the River Ota

Ex Machina

at Athenaeum Theatre

By Justin Hayford

The theater must be larger than you are. –Robert Lepage

The advance press on Robert Lepage’s The Seven Streams of the River Ota makes it out to be the Empire State Building of theater pieces. Four years in the making. Seven and a half hours long. Ten actors playing 30 roles in seven stories spanning three continents and 50 years. Many reviewers of the show, which has been touring the world for the past year or so, seem content to list its myriad elements–the shadow figures, the video projections, the Japanese design, the live percussion, the opera singing, the various languages–apparently convinced that anyone putting enough disparate things onstage must be making great art. This line of thinking can lead to outright nonsense. Performing Arts Chicago’s press release declares that the show “incorporates traditional Japanese art forms” such as Kabuki masks; in actuality, one mask appears for all of five seconds when a character receives it as a gift.

I suppose any show that runs seven and a half hours can be classified as a big deal, but it’s painfully apparent that Lepage is bending over backward to turn an exquisite nugget of a play into something that looks big. In the process he’s diminished the theatrical intensity he might have found.

Lepage is out to tell seven delicate little stories that fold in and around one another throughout the evening. The piece begins in Hiroshima during the American occupation, as a GI tours the city taking official photographs of the physical destruction wrought by the Bomb. He meets Nozomi, a young Japanese woman whose face has been disfigured by radiation. He wants to take a picture of her house; she wants him to take a picture of her face, as a counterweight to her largely overlooked existence.

The two fall in love and have a child, Jeffrey, who becomes the protagonist in the evening’s second playlet, set in a Greenwich Village tenement in 1965. Jeffrey’s father, now dying from leukemia, lives in an apartment next door to his other son–also named Jeffrey–who scores black-market morphine in an attempt to ease the old man’s suffering. The two Jeffreys become friends, though the Japanese Jeffrey can’t bring himself to disclose his identity to his half brother or to tell his father who he is until it’s too late.

Lepage’s stories have the ring of fairy tales: elemental, emblematic, and full of coincidence. We know little about the characters except the predicaments they find themselves in. So when the American Jeffrey ends up dying of AIDS two decades later in the evening’s fourth story, he’s more icon than person, meant to symbolize the burgeoning epidemic rather than draw the audience deeper into one individual’s psychology. His suicide is staged in a shoebox set, his friends and family lined up like figures in a religious frieze.

When Lepage thinks like a fairy-tale illustrator Seven Streams works magic. Nozomi, for example, is a pure image–nearly motionless, outlined against a pitch-black background, her back always to the audience, her gestures fluid and stylized, her lilting accent transforming her spoken lines into music. She doesn’t need to act, because her image does the acting for her–and with great poignancy. And because that image has been rendered with such self-conscious artifice, it’s easy to believe in her; after all, she’s more essence than character, like Cinderella or Snow White.

But the GI is rendered in human detail–sauntering about in full uniform, peering about him as if in a strange land, trying to take swigs from his empty canteen. While the actress playing Nozomi admits that she’s onstage, the actor playing the GI tries his damnedest to persuade us that he’s really in Hiroshima in 1945–and given the highly stylized set he’s pacing back and forth on, he becomes wholly unbelievable. Like many of the performers, he spends most of his time acting like he’s doing something real, while every element of scenic design indicates that he’s faking it.

The only way to get through Seven Streams is to ignore this dichotomy and buy into the naturalistic acting, following the stories in all their inescapably literal detail and surrendering all hope for ambiguous imagery. Despite consistently terrific acting, this is tough to do, especially if you’ve witnessed Lepage’s extraordinary skill at making image-based theater. I will never forget Lepage suspended in midair between two lazily spinning propellers and reading Cocteau in Needles and Opium. Or Lepage as Hamlet in Elsinore, standing in a doorway cut through a wall on which his own gargantuan image is projected facing backward–Hamlet trapped inside himself and facing two directions at once, as perfect an encapsulation of that character as will ever appear on a stage. Nothing in Seven Streams comes close to this level of transcendence.

Fortunately Lepage’s stories are well worth listening to–though not for seven and a half hours. A good half of the show is filler; it’s remarkable how much time characters spend making small talk, carrying on sotto voce, or just standing around. The half that’s left could be greatly compressed by simply picking up the pace; for much of the evening Lepage’s primary direction to his actors seems to be, “Think for a while before doing anything, mull as often as possible, and count to ten before delivering your next line.” In many of the scenes a single idea stretches on forever–do we really need 20 minutes of small talk to figure out that the middle-aged Canadian diplomat wants to scratch his seven-year itch with the young Quebecois actress? It’s easy to find yourself three steps ahead of the show and seething with impatience. With such sluggish pacing and repetitive scenes, the kinds of connections Lepage wants to make across decades and continents never get a chance to form.

Despite all the press hoopla over Lepage’s high-tech stage magic, something he does well, Seven Streams is made up almost entirely of conventional realistic scenes, something he does poorly. When directing his actors he can’t seem to build tension or vary tempo, except in a scene’s final moments, when a big emotional payoff suddenly erupts. Where that other seven-and-a-half-hour play Angels in America tore through contemporary urban life with breathtaking speed, Seven Streams strolls casually across the years, rarely getting too worked up about anything–a curious strategy when around every corner lurks the Hiroshima atomic blast, the Nazi Holocaust, and AIDS. Seven Streams is a model of theatrical inefficiency, and its two hours’ worth of thought-provoking material slips away like a pound of sugar dumped in the ocean.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo by Claudel Huot.