Canadian theater maven Robert Lepage is consistently full of surprises. Over the years, he has flexed his muscles as an actor, filmmaker, and writer, but he's best known for his direction of a host of otherworldly theatrical spectaculars, including his space-travel solo show far side of the moon; his biographical works Geometry of Miracles (inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright) and La Casa Azul (about Frida Kahlo); and Peter Gabriel's concert tour. For the stage, he doesn't write plays; he creates events. Using light, sound, and technology, Lepage often ditches a strict narrative in favor of image collages and sequences. Now, he is stepping into the world of adaptation with his new work, The Busker's Opera.
The original play, The Beggar's Opera, is a 1728 satirical musical by John Gay, which follows the story of a highwayman gigolo, Macheath, who is on the run from the law. The father of one of Macheath's honeys tries to trap him, but the daughter helps him escape; still, he gets himself into more trouble -- he just can't seem to keep it in his pants -- and before you know it, the bad-boy ladies' man is sentenced to be hanged. Gay's play was a risky, thinly veiled commentary about his society and some of its members. But it was still a comedy -- Macheath walked in the end.
Lepage's work takes a darker, more modern twist. For one, it's a rock opera, and Macheath is a musician who's getting screwed by his agent, a corporate slug trying to steal the rights to his music. The agent tries to manipulate him through his own daughter, Polly, but the plan goes askew. As in the original, Macheath finds himself in trouble with more women; but this time, he lands in a Texas jail. He's back on death row, but he's not getting off.
Lepage's songs are entirely different from The Beggar's Opera's, but the idea is the same: Gay wrote his libretto to the tunes of pop hits from the 1700s, and Lepage's music samples everything from Led Zeppelin songs to the Star Wars soundtrack. Performed by Lepage's multifaceted arts company, Ex Machina, The Busker's Opera (produced here by Cal Performances) features a varied group of onstage musicians, singers, actors, and a DJ. It also introduces a mobile plasma TV screen that shows images of a couch or a fireplace to suggest setting, and runs same-language subtitles of the entire show so that viewers can catch every word. There's even a rotating disc in the floor at center stage that sinks and rises throughout, each time bearing the gift of a new set piece -- a telephone booth or a prison cell or a piano.
If you have an extra eye at home, you might want to bring it along. With Lepage at the helm, there's always a lot to see.