Eonnagata at Sony Centre by Stanley Fefferman

Friday, November 19, 2010, Sony Centre, Toronto.

There is a scene in Eonnagata where the character performs writing with an instrument shaped like the plume of a feather that could just as easily be a curved sword held blade up. The writing implement is illusory, the act of writing is illusory because it is being performed paperless, directly onto a table, and the person writing is illusory—being a disowned French spy whose gender is the central illusion of this entertainment.

The title, Eonnagata, unites the name of a person—the Chevalier d’Éon (who lived in the 18th Century), and the term for a cross-dressing Kabuki actor—‘Onnagata’. While this extraordinary work is rooted in the mystery of gender, it comes to flower in addressing the question of the illusory nature of all our lives, regardless of gender, and the sadness that comes when we recognize the reality of this illusion.

Emblematic of this sadness is the fate of the Chevalier d’Eon who performed brilliant diplomatic services—disguised as woman—for Louis XV of France, but who became stranded in England during the French Revolution, was refused a pension  for  services rendered or access to the revenues of the d’Eon family properties, and died a beggar. If there is a moral to this story it is that in the end we cannot count on how we hope others see us: in the end all we have is the mystery of how we see ourselves.

Two of this productions co-creators and performers are from the world of dance—ballerina Sylvie Guillem, whose dancing is magical, and choreographer Russell Maliphant. One is also constantly aware of the magical contributions of Alexander McQueen’s androgynous costumes–kimonos that open to give birth to a second, other-gendered figure, framework crinolines over body leotards veined like da Vinci drawings. Michael Hull’s lighting contributes strikingly to the sense of illusory space: his lighting tricks turn solid characters into shadowy ghosts and, in one instance, light and shadow falling on an open space gives the impression of a prison.

However, the sequence of more than 25 scenes, and the brilliant transformations of scenes aided by only a few props—tables that become cages, that become mirrors, that lose their surfaces and become abstract frames, swords that become pens, costumes that become sets—all the million transformations of monkey—this is the genius of Robert Lepage, who also does a pretty good job of acting and dancing.

Eonnagata relies totally on effects that create wonder rather than excitement. The narrative is slow-moving and quite ceremonial. The music is eclectic and apt. Many of the movements are slow, hyper-controlled motion as in Butoh, and like the gender issue at its root, the final effect  of Eonnagata is unclassifiable and therefore haunting.

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