Wellesley Robertson II, left, and Olivier Normand appear in American Conservatory Theater’s technically amazing production of “Needles and Opium.” (Courtesy Tristram Kenton)

Wellesley Robertson II, left, and Olivier Normand appear in American Conservatory Theater’s technically amazing production of “Needles and Opium.” (Courtesy Tristram Kenton)

Dazzling stagecraft outshines story in ‘Needles and Opium’

The visual imagery in writer-director Robert Lepage’s “Needles and Opium” at American Conservatory Theater is so stunning that it almost doesn’t matter that the script is secondary.

The play begins with a fictional narrator-character, Robert, seemingly suspended in space on a dark stage and appearing eerily skeletal. He explains that he is trying acupuncture, which is said to cure three conditions from which he suffers: low self-esteem, heartache and anguish.

This is only the first scene in a spectacle of vertiginous, gravity-defying and beautifully illusory visions.

Québecois theatrical auteur Lepage is masterful at creating such stage magic. His work, produced by his company, Ex Machina, has frequently appeared at Cal Performances, and this production, in English translation, is a fine example of his singular artistry.

It first premiered in 1991 in Québec City; Lepage has since reworked it.

In it, Lepage illuminates bits and pieces of the lives of two 20th-century figures: jazz trumpeter Miles Davis (portrayed by Wellesley Robertson III) and French poet, filmmaker and playwright Jean Cocteau (whose “Letter to Americans” comprises some of his text).

In the mix is Robert, presumably Lepage’s alter ego, a contemporary Canadian who’s in Paris to narrate a doc about Miles Davis in Paris in 1949.

Olivier Normand plays both Robert and Cocteau.

As it happened, that year when Davis was performing in Paris, and met French singer Juliette Gréco, Cocteau was in New York.

All three characters are heartbroken: Davis leaves Gréco, the love of his life, to return to New York, where a mixed-race marriage seemed unthinkable; Cocteau’s cherished young companion had died in 1923; Robert’s lover has recently left him.

Bereft, Davis turned to heroin, Cocteau to opium (Davis eventually kicked the habit), Robert to various cures.

The action takes place entirely within a large, suspended, rotating see-through cube, which, by way of lights, video and digital imagery, trapdoors and film-noirish shadows and silhouettes, conjures various atmospheres and settings: a cheap Parisian hotel room, a back alley where Davis slumps with a needle in his arm and so on.

The actors crawl, walk, slide and fly within the space with dancerly grace.

If only the snippets of story were more substantial. But the script is disjointed, the characters’ emotional lives frustratingly incomplete, and Cocteau in particular more pedantic than eloquent. Yet the acting and the production elements are so dazzling, chances are you won’t care.

Needles and Opium
Where: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes April 23
Tickets: $20 to $105
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org
American Conservatory TheaterJean CocteauMiles DavisNeedles and OpiumOlivier NormandRobert LepageTheaterWellesley Robertson III

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