“I promise I’ll never leave you at Heartbreak Hotel.”
Ex Machina and Robert Lepage’s tour-de-force Pique opened with an Elvis impersonator marrying a Quebecois couple with these marriage vows. If you haven’t already guessed, Pique takes place in Las Vegas and you can be sure Lepage capitalizes on the stale adage “whatever happens in Vegas,”… well, you know the rest.
Pique, the French word for Spade, is the first part of Lepage’s four-part performance piece Jeux de cartes. The show, Card Games, pays homage to this very invention we owe to Ancient Egypt and each part (Pique, Coeur, Carreau, Trèfle) depicts a facet of the West’s complicated relationship with the Arab world.
The show takes place during President Bush’s invasion of Iraq in a non-descript casino in Vegas. At the casino, four concurrent plots unfold over a weekend that changes everyone’s lives for the worse. These plots include the tribulations of poorly matched Quebecois newlyweds, two soldiers’ encounter with their lecherous commander, a British businessman’s attempt to resolve his debts despite his devastating gambling addiction, and a head maid’s struggle to seek medical attention as an illegal immigrant. The whole thing reminded me of a modern, self-indulgent version of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas minus the edgy dialog and sardonic humour.
Nevertheless, the incredible stage mechanics and formidable acting made up for the over-the-top storyline. The stage, a kind of rotating orb, allowed scenes to creatively meld into one another: a bar becomes a swimming pool, becomes a hotel room, becomes the Nevada desert. Like a tightly edited film, it was exciting to wonder what would happen next. One particularly memorable scene included four television screens displaying a helicopter propeller as a circle of chairs descended from the ceiling turning into a support group for gambling addicts. The acting was full of other delightful surprises. My jaw dropped when, towards the end of the show, I realized the same actress who played the meek, mouse-haired housemaid doubled as the blonde bombshell prostitute.
The strong acting and creative mechanics almost made up for this show’s length and heavy-handed symbolism. Pique opens with great promise but degenerates into a tragic melodrama. Tying up all the character storylines added a superfluous half hour to the show and left little, if anything, for the audience to interpret. Not to mention, almost every character’s plot resolved in such a shocking way that by the final scene, the culmination of each lie, each betrayal, and each murder, fizzles out like the fourth season of your favourite show.
Pique plays until Feburary 10 at Tohu. 7:30 p.m. $25/49 and up. The next episode, Coeur, starts February 18.