Invstigations into Voice: Robert Lepage’s Lipsynch


A woman who can’t speak leans her bandaged head towards a microphone and hums.

After recording a live loop, she plays it back and hums again–this time a little differently. She does this again and again, layering sound over sound, until she has composed something that lies between Gregorian chant and Icelandic post-rock. While this woman has lost her ability to speak due to a brain operation, she has, it seems, just found her voice.

The contemplation of voice, in its many physical and metaphysical permutations, is the subject of Robert Lepage’s internationally acclaimed epic Lipsynch, a nine-hour production that is having its U.S. premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

This co-production of Robert Lepage’s company Ex Machina and Théâtre Sans Frontières presents a narrative constructed in nine segments, each built around one character, whose stories intersect and overlap with eerie resonance. Among the protagonists is an opera singer (Rebecca Blankenship) who adopts the child of a woman sold into sex slavery, a neurologist who causes a woman to lose her voice, a sex worker (Sarah Kemp) dealing with memories of incest, and an aging British speech therapist, in a very funny but chilling scene with actor John Cobb in drag. The story takes us to Nicaragua, Canada, Germany and Britain—the characters moving seamlessly between English, German, French and Spanish—and moves just as easily through time over the course of some 70 years beginning in 1945, compressing and dilating time—in one instance collapsing twenty years into a single ride on the London tube.

At the center of the narrative is a young woman who is tricked into leaving Nicaragua for Hamburg, Germany where she is forced to become a sex slave. And while she dies on her flight to freedom, before being able to speak out against her abductors, her voice seemingly denied her, the narratives of the other characters not only reclaim her voice, but also convey her particular problem from a variety of angles; the challenge of the voice to transcend the physical body.

The dichotomy between physicality and the voice as emblem of the ineffable quality of individuality, or what some might call “soul,” is perpetuated throughout the various short and robust vignettes. Marie hires a lip-reader to interpret what her dead father is saying in some old 8mm films. In another scene, Tony, a man ashamed of his past explains that he hired a voice coach to “change who he was.” And then there is Thomas, the German neurologist who performs the operation that leaves a woman literally speechless, and who doesn’t believe in the immortality of the soul. “The brain is the ultimate creator,” he says confidently to a group of interns before the operation. But later, in one very affecting scene, Thomas has a mental breakdown that signifies a larger philosophical shift.

Thomas and his wife are sitting on stools sipping tea around a tray that is balanced on a thin black stand. The stage is nearly empty except for a small profusion of objects erected on similar thin black stands and arranged in front of a camera. When the camera is turned on, a JumboTron screen is illuminated and we see a larger-than-life image of Thomas and his wife sitting at a table. The table is an optical illusion created from those disparate raised objects. Yet, the illusion of the table, and the larger-than-life couple is so much more satisfying to watch than the depressingly life-sized people on stage surrounded by “table pieces.” Thomas breaks up with his wife, and subsequently falls to the floor and crawls around the “table pieces.” On screen, it appears as though he’s sliding through the table. He looks disoriented. On screen, he crawls calmly over to what appears to be a piano and slides through that. The observed world that Thomas had so resolutely relied on is exposed as merely a series of illusory acts that are meaningless without an observer.

While Lipsynch provides enough intellectual sustenance to be a compelling piece of theater, the work avoids heavy-handed philosophizing that might feel exclusionary to some audiences or might make a nine-hour production unbearable. Lepage’s work strikes a balance between exploring issues, both timeless and current, and providing exciting performances that will appeal to audiences inured to the quick scenes and visual effects of film as well as to audiences who seek the immediacy and humble impermanence that is the province of theater. The set pieces–composed of glass, steel and light–break apart, spin around and reconfigure to form an airplane, the London tube, or a window onto a European red-light district. His sets expose the process of his theater. The sets are changed before you, and if you choose to sit in your seat during an intermission, you will be privy to the next scene’s set-up. There is no curtain, no veil. Even things that are plainly before you can be, with the right touch, made magical.

Part of what makes Lepage’s theater so thrilling is his surprising deployment of technology. Last season, Lepage introduced interactive technology to the Metropolitan Opera in his production of The Damnation of Faust. For that production, Lepage outfitted the stage with a five-tiered metal scaffold over which screens were rolled out and projections cast. He implemented a system of infrared lights and motion-detecting cameras to allow the singers to manipulate the projections with their voice and movement. In the opening aria, as the pitch of the singer’s voice shifted so too did the direction of the digitally produced flock of birds. In Lipsynch, Lepage makes use of cameras, JumboTron projections, and instruments for voice manipulation to transform for example the sound of a woman’s voice into that of a man’s in an effort to assist a woman in finding the right voice for her dead father whose image alone is available to her on film.

While nine hours seems like a lot of time to spend at the theater, at Lipsynch, it flies. In a time when it’s difficult for modern theater to justify making an audience sit through lengthy presentations, whether in film, theater, or, as in this case, a stunning hybrid of theatrical media, Lipsynch is justified. Lepage is bringing new life to the stage, or as Peter Gabriel has said, making theater for people who don’t like theater. Wherever you stand with regard to live performance, Lipsynch will likely transcend your expectations.

Rozalia Jovanovic is a founding editor of Gigantic, a magazine of short prose and art. She is the Deputy Editor of Flavorpill and has received fellowships from The MacDowell Colony and Columbia University. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming from Unsaid, The Believer, Everyday Genius, Guernica, elimae, and She blogs at The Astonishing Egg and is The Rumpus New York Editor. More from this author →