The Andersen Project

by Robert Israel

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday March 26, 2012

Yves Jacques in "The Andersen Project"
Yves Jacques in "The Andersen Project"  

With "The Andersen Project," writer/director Robert Lepage creates a world where the familiar and fantastical come to life. To do so he enlists the solo talents of the gifted actor Yves Jacques. There is nothing to compare or contrast it to. It is an original work of reverie, of mystery, of poetry and hallucination. It is being staged as if through a surreal prism. It must be experienced. No, correction: it must be embraced, and quickly, before it leaves town.

The concept is a retelling of the ancient myth of The Dryad, a story about a nymph that travels to Paris within the trunk of a tree as originally told by Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen. But that's only one part of the play. There is also a story that surrounds this retelling, as Frederic (Jacques), who hails from Montreal, arrives in Paris, house-sits a friend's dog and his apartment, and is keen at writing a libretto for the Andersen story to be performed at the Paris Opera.

Yves Jacques in "The Andersen Project"
Yves Jacques in "The Andersen Project"  

What ensues is a mélange: a light show, eerie hallucinatory music, projected images on a screen, puppetry, all crowned by a tour de force performance by actor Jacques. He plays not only the librettist, but also a bespectacled producer, a hooded janitor, and the personas of others communicated through illusion, and by amplified cell phone conversations and imaginary encounters.

The set design, by Jean Le Bourdais, is so fluid that at one moment we are taken outside a row of a claustrophobic peep show booth at a Paris porno shop, only to enter these dingy cubicles later in the play, when the audience is brought inside their encroaching walls and flickering screens.

It is important to note that the wizardry used in "The Andersen Project" - the multi-media, the sense of being pulled into a hallucinatory vortex of sound and imagery - is Lepage's hallmark, and one he has used most recently in his staging of the "Ring" cycle at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. (Concurrent to that production, he directed another multi-media show, "The Blue Dragon," in Toronto). The best summation of his approach to theatre can be found on a short video produced in conjunction with his being awarded the rather lucrative 2012 Eugene McDermott Award at MIT in Cambridge.

Yves Jacques in "The Andersen Project"
Yves Jacques in "The Andersen Project"  

In this video interview (see below), he defines theatre as an art form that takes us back to our caveman days when our ancestors stood around fires to tell stories and employed the use of shadows to convey other characters and other voices.

According to Lepage, this was the first use of technology (projecting images through light and heat) that gave birth to all the technologies that followed.

There is some truth in Lepage's definition. Indeed, "The Andersen Project" makes ample use of shadows. It is not by accident that while Jacques takes his bows before the final curtain, that the last image projected on the screen onstage at the Cutler Majestic is of a blazing inferno. Without this ancient art of shadow dancing, and the invoking of a primitive blazing inferno, Jacques, the solo actor, could not weave his mysteries.

Lepage finds universality in the tales by Hans Christian Andersen, which, like the tales by the Brothers Grimm, are meant to be enchanting but also eerie, to teach children life's moral lessons. It is this element of the fantastical - the unseen narrator in the play who is reading from Andersen's written text, published originally in 1868 - that I found myself brought way back to the memories of storytelling during my childhood.

Is this a magician's sleight of hand? Yes. Is this an art form that disguises mass hypnosis? Yes. Lepage is all these things, and more. He has an uncanny ability to mesmerize. He transports the audience to this magical place. You will find yourself on a journey eager to surrender all doubts, just to be living in a far away kingdom.

"The Andersen Project" is about long ago, and about today. And it is being given a spellbinding, vivid, and moving production.


"The Andersen Project," written and directed by Robert Lepage, is presented by ArtsEmerson, at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, downtown Boston, through April 1. For ticket information, visit their website

Robert Israel writes about theater, arts, culture and travel. Follow him on Twitter at @risrael1a.