A new work by Robert Lepage is always a major event. In theater, the Quebecois director, actor, and filmmaker stands with the likes of Robert Wilson or Peter Sellars at the pinnacle of theatrical invention and global acclaim. Little wonder that, like Wilson and Sellars, Lepage has found opera a logical outlet for his extraordinary capacities and grand, all-encompassing visions. (His last Bay Area bow was in November 2007 at the San Francisco Opera, where he staged Stravinsky's 1951 opera The Rake's Progress.) But while he is a truly international force wielding the largest of canvases, there's an intimate and personal side running through much of his work, perhaps nowhere more poignantly than in his stunningly staged solo plays The Far Side of the Moon (2003) and The Andersen Project (2005). The latter, which slyly folds layers of personal and cultural doubt (as well as biting cultural satire) into a glancing exploration of Danish storyteller Hans Christian Andersen's troubled psyche, makes its local debut courtesy of Cal Performances.
As with Far Side, Andersen was developed with Lepage playing dual roles that together define a kind of split personality and serve as starting point for a series of thematic dyads. In this case, the main characters are a corrupt French opera director and a French Canadian musician-songwriter named Frédéric Lapointe, who arrives in Paris on a commission to write an opera based on an Andersen story. Also as with Far Side, Lepage eventually handed off the roles to Yves Jacques. An extremely gifted theater and film actor in his own right (probably best known to Americans through several Denys Arcand films), Jacques shares a history and affinity with Lepage (they've known each other since their twenties) that make him the best, and perhaps the only, person capable of stepping into these demanding, idiosyncratic solo shows, with their half-hidden strands of autobiography and fraught national identity. I recently spoke with Jacques by phone from Montreal.
SFBG Before Andersen, you took over another Lepage solo play.
YVES JACQUES It started with Far Side because it was a story very close to him. So he wanted someone with the same sensibility. I was able to understand his feelings about [the subject matter]. So afterward he said, 'Why not continue with The Andersen Project?'
SFBG Was it at all intimidating to take over these plays from their originator?
YJ Oh, yes. I felt a big responsibility to be at least equivalent to Robert just to reach the level of the acting he puts into the show. But he liked [what I was doing] and was very happy because for once he could see his own work. When you play in a solo show you don't always understand what you're doing. Now he could see himself, or himself through me.
SFBG How did you approach the part?
YJ I never feel I'm doing a one-man show; I'm doing a play. I'm doing the yin and the yang of the same character, in a way. Far Side was the story of two brothers, and this is quite the same. You have the director of the Paris Opera and then you have Lapointe. They're very different but they're played by the same actor. In a way, it's the yin and the yang of the same personality, which is Hans Christian Andersen. Lepage is using two different characters to describe [the complexity of] Andersen. It's very clever. You see Andersen only twice in the show but he's not talking; he's just a silhouette. The only way to know him is to understand the other two.
SFBG The assertion of a Quebecois identity against the dominant Anglo culture of Canada is a theme in much of Lepage's work.
YJ Lapointe comes to Paris because he wants to be approved of by Parisians [but] he says at the end, I came here for the wrong reasons.