A room snowing with static. A cyclist furiously pedaling forward but heading backward. Chinese characters that bleed into being on a screen. These are pieces in Robert Lepage and Ex Machina's theatrical puzzle "The Blue Dragon," now playing at the Freud as part of UCLA Live's International Theatre Festival.
This work in progress, co-commissioned by the festival, marks the celebrated Quebecois hyphenate's first appearance on stage in Los Angeles. But "Dragon" is a return of sorts, as Lepage plays a character first seen in his 1985 epic "The Dragons' Trilogy." That piece ended with Pierre Lamontagne going off to China to study; this "Dragon" finds him running an art collective in Shanghai and fighting a serious case of the mean reds.
Michel Gauthier's elegant set consists of two levels of back-lit opaque panels framed in steel, a deceptively mobile architecture that variously becomes a plane, a subway station, an apartment and a painter's studio -- settings for a rather conventional story of Pierre and two women: Claire (Marie Michaud, who co-wrote the piece), a former lover now in advertising, and Xiao Ling (Tai Wei Foo), the young Chinese artist with whom he's involved. Claire arrives with a suitcase full of toys for the Chinese baby she's come to adopt. Her baggage gets lost, the adoption plan goes south and the three find themselves connected in ways they hadn't imagined.
On one level, this is a play one could stage with two chairs and a table, and Lepage's spectacular mise-en-scene tends to overpower, not enrich, his fledgling story. That's due in part to the tentative stage of the writing and performances, although Michaud offers an appealing, unpretentious presence. (This L.A. run is also the first time the team has performed the show in English). Dramatically, the story's most vivid moments come not from characters but context: After all, this love triangle -- a kind of Postmodern "Madame Butterfly" -- takes place in a country with a one-child policy, making abortions, as Pierre puts it, as "routine as a trip to the dentist." The extreme costs of China's modernization feel considerably more urgent than Pierre's life crisis.
"Dragon's" elaborate scenography seems to be searching for a storytelling style that suits its bolder imagery. (The production values are consistently excellent, particularly Louis-Xavier Gagnon-Lebrun's lighting.) Lepage often compresses the energy of identity conflict into intensely theatrical gestures, and "Dragon" is no exception: Xiao Ling's artwork consists of photos she takes of herself after receiving cellphone calls, such as the one informing her of the death of her mother.
Then there are several evocative monologues that feature Pierre writing calligraphic figures on giant screens, including his name -- "little stone" and "mountain," an apparent oxymoron. China seems to represent the struggle to become truly individual: differentiated from parents, addictions and the mass culture created by the Chairman (Mao), the Colonel (Sanders, as in KFC) and technology.
Lepage famously finds his shows in front of audiences, and Angelenos interested in facilitating that process will enjoy seeing something that still exists in parts rather than an integrated whole. The version I saw on Wednesday may be quite different by this weekend. What's missing in this beautifully staged but undeclared work is the unifying premise that allows each theatrical element to inform and charge the others. Given Lepage's track record, that cohesion is likely to emerge over time to claim the impressive space he's built for it.
'The Blue Dragon'
Where: Freud Playhouse, UCLA campus, Westwood
When: 8 p.m. today, Saturday and Tuesday through next Friday, 7 p.m. Sunday, 2 and 8 p.m. Nov. 22. Ends Nov. 22.
Price: $40 to $60
Contact: (310) 825-2101 or www.uclalive.org
Running time: 2 hours