PLAYING CARDS 1: SPADES by Sylvio Arriola, Carole Faisant, Nuria Garcia, Tony Guilfoyle, Martin Haberstroh, Robert Lepage, Sophie Martin and Roberto Mori (Ex Machina/Luminato). At the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre (227 Front East). To June 17, Saturday 7:30 pm, Sunday 2 pm. $45-$90. 416-368-4849. See listing. Rating: NNNN
Early on in director Robert Lepage's mesmerizing Spades, an immigrant cleaning lady in a Las Vegas hotel tutors a new maid on how to properly clean a room. Windows don't open, she tells her, because of the potential for suicide; and when you find a dead body in the room (which is bound to happen), you need to call the front desk and say the words "Code Black."
This scene acts a bit like Chekhov's gun, waiting to go off in the final act. Throughout the three unbroken hours of the play, the first in a projected tetralogy of works based on the suits of a deck of playing cards, you keep waiting for the inevitable discovery of a dead body.
Will it be the corpse of the British TV exec who's also a gambling addict and is fleeing his creditors? Will it be one or both of the Quebec newlyweds, whose marriage is tested when they meet a mysterious French-speaking stranger in the hotel hot tub? Maybe it will be one of two young special ops soldiers who are just about to head out to a big mission in Iraq. Or it could even be the experienced Mexican-born maid herself, who has been having stomach pains lately.
These are just a few of the rich narrative threads woven into this highly theatrical show that - like an old-time Vegas magician - keeps on entertaining with its bag of tricks.
Always an innovator, Lepage and his Ex Machina team have built a raised circular playing area that's positioned in the middle of the Tanenbaum Opera Centre, with the audience placed in four sections around it. (It reminded me a bit of a small-scale version of the theatre Cirque du Soleil built for their Las Vegas production of Love, the Beatles show, at the Mirage.)
This allows for settings to change quickly - one minute a noisy, flashy casino, the next a tranquil rooftop pool - and for characters to emerge from beneath as if they were walking up a staircase or parading around their hotel room.
Sometimes the most memorable effects are also the simplest. In one scene, metal chairs descend from above via wires and land on the stage to become the setting for a poignant monologue at a gamblers' anonymous meeting (talk about an efficient, unexpected way to deliver exposition). A couple of times a bank of colourful, clinking bottles emerges from beneath to suggest a bar. Stunning.
True, you can occasionally hear equipment shift and cables groan beneath that stage, or a TV monitor might deliver static instead of a proper image. But the payoff, when everything's working, is worth it.
The show's most common effect concerns hotel doors that spring up from the floor, 90 degrees. Amusing on their first appearance, they signal that someone is about to approach the door and knock, adding a touch of tension to scenes, especially as the show progresses and the stakes for the characters get higher.
Lepage, who wrote the work with the company, clearly knows how to grip our attention and tease the imagination with individual scenes. What he hasn't done yet - and this piece will likely be refined as it continues to tour the world - is integrate all his themes.
The setting is 2003, when the US declares war on Iraq, and while our two soldiers are facing life-changing consequences in another desert across the globe, there's a sort of randomness about the other stories. But maybe Lepage is simply riffing on chance and luck, two themes that drive Sin City. During one significant scene, a character changes a news item featuring Bush to a Mexican telenovela (Spanish is one of many languages spoken through the show). The scene doesn't resonate as it might.
Still, the epic work is certainly linked together by its imagery - which includes a literal spade (used to dig a grave in one mysterious scene), a sword (which apparently is what a spade represents in the Tarot deck) and any number of black items. (Remember that "Code Black" warning?) Even those hotel doors, when they pop up, suggest over-sized playing cards.
In order not to spoil your enjoyment, I don't want to say much about the performances, except to say the actors do incredible work in a number of roles.
Here's a hint: don't consult the programme before watching the show. The company's biggest, most jaw-dropping reveal comes near the end, at a time when you least expect it.
Bravo to Luminato for being one of the presenters of this major work. Let's hope they help bring the other three shows (each to be performed using the same circular set) at future festivals.