Stunning stage props, a mesmerizing set-up, an enthralling storyline involving no more than six talented international actors and actresses – in short, magical theater is what Canadian – sorry, Quebecois director Robert Lepage is known for. And this is what he also achieved with his most recent creation “Playing Cards: Spades”, the first part of a tetralogy which focuses on the inherent meaning of the card deck. In the Tarot, spades symbolize swords, power, conflict and war, which is what this story is about. The play was performed in Vienna at the Wiener Festwochen (Vienna Festival) 2013 and is now on its way to Moscow.
Take a round stage under which the acting crew disappears and emerges, chairs and slot-machines floating down the ceiling, doors rising up from the ground, an on-stage steamy whirlpool or a flamboyant desert storm. Take all of this and you will get an idea of what Lepagean theater is all about. To get the real sensual experience, though, you will need to see “Playing Cards” for yourself.
Unlike many critics, who claim that apart from technical perfection there’s little contents or information in Lepage’s play, I counter-argue that this work is full of social and political critique as well as personal drama. What more contents could one desire in our post-modernist era of theater where we can be happy if anything makes any sense at all?
The story plays in Las Vegas and offers every cliché the “city of gamblers” is (in)famous for: A fake Elvis acting as a priest to marry a young French couple, a hotel casino with former and beginning gambling addicts, unbearably hot days and chilly nights in the Nevada desert, and an international army training camp which, in the play, is called “Al Zubyr”, a staged-up Iraqi village serving the future combatants as a military playground. And a hotel where one gets chips in return for cash – the only real setting in which the characters every now and then encounter each other, facing the crises of their lives.
In many Native American myths, there’s a trickster figure, a character that disillusions and deceives with his smartness and keen spirit – one may also call him a Joker. Wearing a cowboy hat, Lepage’s joker Dick seduces the French couple at the hotel’s whirlpool while Mark, a former gambling addict from the UK, relaxes on his “business trip” for a TV sales company from the stress of not answering unwanted phone calls. His surprise: an attractive French love affair, a TV saleswoman as well, who is already waiting for him in the hotel room. Meanwhile, the Latin American hotel staff is busy cleaning the rooms. After a hot debate about President Bush, who is announcing his war against Iraq on four television screens coming down from the ceiling, one Mexican cleaning lady, a hard-working woman in her middle ages, faints in the kitchen – but nobody wants to call a doctor, because she’s an illegal.
The war on terror is an international alliance of fighters from countries as diverse as Denmark and Spain. The two soldiers we follow on stage are on their preparation mission in the Nevada desert and trained to function like machines by their masochistic commander, who disguises his homosexual inclinations with crude brutality. And then Aysha, one of the showgirls or the “Queen of Spades”, comes into play. She’s a half-Spanish, half-Moroccan entertainment lady who tries her luck with a new potential client for the night, the Spanish soldier who left the training camp for some weekend entertainment in Vegas. His gay comrade Holger follows him there to escape his commander’s sexual harassment and humiliations. And the plot begins to change in a dramatically powerful fashion.
Seduction and addiction, illusion and delusion, money, sex and crime – all these aspects are the stuff of which Lepage’s play is made. They are the glue that interweaves six persons who perform several roles at once in such a realistic way that – at first sight – one really can’t tell who is who. The city of unfulfilled hopes and dreams becomes a nightmare, a painful revelation for each character. All of them undergo their own process of inner transformation.
In the end, we see Mark, the former gambling addict, looking for the salvation of his lost soul with a shaman in the desert. The French couple is on the verge of a marriage and identity crisis caused by their mysterious, fatamorganic friend Dick. The Mexican cleaning lady is diagnosed with “pre-menopause” by a suspicious and greedy doctor. For the doctor she had stolen money from her working colleague Concepción (most likely a hint to her unfulfilled desire of giving birth) while, at the same time, the French newly-wed woman is losing her unborn baby after a psychedelic night with Dick. And showgirl Aysha fulfills the gay Danish soldier’s ultimate wish, for which she receives an enormous amount of money.
A red sandstorm that turns into a thin column blown into the ceiling is Robert Lepage’s final curtain call for a play that impresses with its strong actresses and actors, an intriguing web of plots, and a breeze of humor, suspense, fascination and irony.