Robert Lepage's Spades an in-the-round experience

Spades, Quebec master Robert Lepage's new production making its North American premiere at Toronto's Luminato festival, is a work designed for theatres-in-the-round.

Specially built circular stage brings in sets and actors from below

Spades, the first production in Robert Lepage's Playing Cards series, takes place in two desert cities: Las Vegas and Baghdad. (Eric Labbé/Luminato)

Every Robert Lepage production is a work-in-progress, beginning without a complete script and evolving as actors move into the roles. The technical elements fall into place and Lepage himself guides the process.

Spades, his new production making its North American premiere Wednesday in Toronto, is similarly evolving. The Quebec writer-director's goal is to create four works in a Playing Cards series – Spades, to be followed by Hearts, Diamonds and Clubs – that was collectively commissioned by a group of performing arts venues around the world.

Spades is a contemporary examination of war and illusion, but also of chance. The action is centred in Las Vegas — both at the gaming tables and behind the scenes at the casinos — and in another desert city, Baghdad, where the war in Iraq is just beginning.

The story follows a Spanish soldier and another from Denmark, both bound for the war in Iraq, a British TV producer and her lover, an alcoholic French executive, a couple preparing to wed in Vegas and a hotel maid – a wide cast of characters who speak different languages and have different life experiences.

Lepage sees playing cards as an allegory for life, family, chance, sex, power and the human experience, he told Radio-Canada. His works are shaped by everyone involved in their creation and Spades remains a work-in-progress as it debuts in Toronto.

Shaping the action

"The production always has the same story and continues from this point to the next and the next, but things develop as we work on the piece," Lepage said.

"I like to shape the action after talking it over with the actors and after seeing the audience reaction [for the world premiere] in Madrid." 

Very early in the process, Lepage and his producers decided the play would be produced for theatres-in-the-round and the decision has shaped the creative process. So far, Spades has been performed only in Madrid, where its sheer complexity and ambition wowed critics.

In Spades, Las Vegas spins its illusions over a diverse cast of characters, each with his or her own story. (Eric Labbé/Luminato)

Producer Michel Bernatchez of Ex Machina, the production company behind Lepage's works, says Spades is "low-tech" in comparison with many of the artist's other productions.

Projections, often used by the internationally acclaimed Lepage, are next to impossible for this round format. The actors and the sets must both exit and enter from below the stage.

Ex Machina has designed a round stage that houses the sets, ranging from desert scenes to bars and nightclubs to casino tables. Having the audience surrounding the performers has necessitated very precise blocking, Bernatchez said, so that everyone sees part of the action facing them.

"It imposes a new language and we're slowly trying to master that language," he told CBC News.

"It's remarkable in round spaces — and this will be true to an extent in Toronto. We can gather a lot of people in the audience and still the production is intimate because everyone is close. You benefit from the fact that you can sit people on four sides around the stage."

The complication in Toronto is that the city doesn't technically have a theatre-in-the-round. The production is being staged at the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre and though the audience will be on four sides, the theatre is box-shaped. Ex Machina, Lepage and his cast and crew are adapting the production to the new space.

Multilingual production

Lepage has hired German, English, Spanish and Quebec actors of Latin American origin for the production, which has them performing in their native language. Because of this, Spades requires a system of surtitles, displayed above the audience, on all four sides.

Where his opera Nightingale and Other Short Fables for the Canadian Opera Company exploited water, in the case of Spades, air is the interesting element. Wind, heat or the cold of the desert shifts the atmosphere.

"The desert is also one of the characters, maybe the main character," Bernatchez said. "A character will go away to the desert and Lepage has been able to use that in an interesting way."

Lighting is also important in focusing the attention of the audience, because while action is taking place on one part of the stage, a scene change may be underway and new characters emerging in another, darkened area. As with all Lepage theatre productions, the precision in the changes are critical. Timing gets more precise and blind spots are eliminated with each staging, Bernatchez said.

Lepage is always refining, Bernatchez added, "especially when a show is that young and people are creating the show starting from scratch."

"The shows are written and structured through a process. The actors improvise and Robert, somehow, is like a traffic cop, directing it and building links between scenes. Slowly, the show emerges in that way," he said.

Spades plays June 13-17 as part of Luminato, Toronto's Festival of Arts and Creativity.