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Luminato: Playing Cards with Robert Lepage
A review of the North American premiere of Playing Cards: SPADES, the first in a four part series named after each suit

Images via Luminato

Innovative, ambitious, complex and technically brilliant: sounds like Robert LePage. In Toronto as part of the Luminato Festival, renowned director Robert Lepage presents the North American premiere of Playing Cards: SPADES, the first in a four-part series named after each suit. Performed in the round, with an international cast, complete with a rotating, rising and sinking stage, countless sets, costumes, wigs and props, Playing Cards is a three-hour technical and theatrical feat by a man who is largely regarded as Canada’s genius of the stage.

Between the casinos of Las Vegas and the deserts of Nevada, Playing Cards: SPADES tells a series of interlocking stories, following the lives a sordid and compelling mix of characters who all seem to find themselves in the glamour and grime of a Vegas hotel.  With the aid of a vibrant costume design by Sebastien Dionne and wigs by Rachel Tremblay, the show features over 20 characters, performed by six talented chameleon-like actors. 

Set amid the mounting global social and political tensions following President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, Playing Cards tells the stories of two middle-aged Mexican chambermaids, a British TV producer with a crippling gambling addiction, a young married-in-Vegas Quebecois couple, an adulterous French trophy wife, a Danish and Spanish soldier bound for Iraq, an Argentinean bellhop, a prostitute, and an Elvis impersonator, just to name a few.

Playing Cards, a truly international and multilingual production, is performed in French, Spanish, Danish and English featuring surtitles to help the audience follow the action. Seamlessly shifting from one language to the next, it is performed by Sylvio Arriola, Nuria Garcia, Tony Guilfoyle, Martin Haberstroh, Sophie Martin and Roberto Mori and co-written by the performers, Lepage, and Carole Faisant. 

In this production, Lepage plays with the idea of chance, exploring how each character attempts to control the variables of his or her life, to play the odds so to speak. Vegas, the land of illusion and delusion, becomes a vortex of human vice as Lepage parallels the moral erosion of his characters with the onset of the war in Iraq. By examining the minute and interlocking details of the characters’ lives, Lepage attempts to decode the ills of humanity on a global scale. No small undertaking.

Performed on a circular stage with the audience on all sides, the show is meticulously crafted. The sets rise and sink out of a square in the centre of the stage with expert precision, swallowing props and actors and miraculously producing new ones. Every set change becomes an act of technical wizardry as the action shifts from one location to the next: an army training camp, a hotel pool, bars, casinos, an airport lobby, the open desert, an a series of hotel rooms.  

Most scenes take place below stage level in a square pit. A complex trap door system is manipulated by seven unseen technicians who scoot around at floor level on wheeled seats calling the cues of the dizzying, infinitely complicated changes. 

Due to the fact that it is performed in the round, the show is experienced differently by audience members on every side. Each side of the ring views the show from a unique angle and constructs the narrative through a different set of images. These multiple perspectives are emblematic of Lepage’s core storytelling strategy. Each time a hotel room emerges from the pit of the stage it shifts its orientation by 90 degrees, compelling the audience to watch the action unfold from multiple angles as our opinions of the characters continue to shift and evolve.

Though the ending, a corny Vegas-style montage, seemed somewhat abrupt and forced, Lepage is notorious for ironing out kinks during a performance run, treating his productions as a perennial works in progress. This aside, Playing Cards is filled raw and intimate moments, brilliant technical wizardry, and the type of acute and compelling storytelling that stays embedded in the psyche for a very long time.

Playing Cards: SPADES
Ex Machina
Luminato Festival
June 13-17
Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre
227 Front St. East

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