Review: “Needles and Opium” at the American Conservatory Theatre

Needles and Opium is less of a genuine play than a piece of performance art. Consisting of a series of vignettes about the lives of Robert LePage, the French-Canadian director of the show, French writer/director/visual artist Jean Cocteau, and legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, the work is presented on a giant three dimensional cube that rotates and is suspended above the audience, lit by extremely elaborate projections while the actors either move balletically around the set or are suspended on wires. There are genuine theatrical scenes, however, so I do not feel inappropriate reviewing in in this space, which is designed for the review of theatre.

Needles and Opium is one of the best looking shows I’ve ever seen. The set design is awe-inspiring, and looks like it cost quite a bit of money to make and operate—there must have been a dozen technicians that came out and bowed at the end. Such spectacle, however, has a tendency to overwhelm narrative theatre, and while traditional narrative is not what this project has in mind, one cannot help but feel that the more traditional moments are not much more than filler. Needles and Opium is ultimately a mood piece, and it does set up its own mood effectively, but it never encourages an audience to move from passive viewing to active viewing.

The whole evening is polished and professional, and holds the attention in its technical wizardry, but perhaps it’s designed more for those who want to sit back and enjoy the spectacle than lean in and embrace the art of the written word. You’ll have a good enough time either way, but it’s difficult recommending that audiences spend the money for what amounts to a cross between a lesser version of Cirque du Soleil and a lesser version of the ballet.

I feel that I have some sort of obligation to write more about Needles and Opium, but the whole thing is so pleasantly glib that there’s really not much else to talk about. It’s an experience worth having, but not worth writing home about.

Needles and Opium plays at the Geary Theatre in San Francisco through April 23rd. Tickets and information available here.

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