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Far Side of the Moon Still Rings True

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Watching Robert Lepage perform his seminal work The Far Side of the Moon in Vancouver last night, was an exercise in nostalgia.

The play, that eloquently poses the question "are we alone?" by juxtaposing the space race with one man's quiet individual and familial struggles, pits the vastness of the cosmos against the smallness of the mundane. In the end there is an uneasy, but graceful reconciliation.

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While it certainly must have been an interesting experience for Lepage -- who had to step in for the last week of performances at SFU's Fei & Milton Wong Experimental Theatre when leading man Yves Jacques landed a role in a Nicole Kidman film -- and likened the re-visiting of a 12-year-old work to "making love with your ex-wife" -- it was also quite a trip for the audience.

There was a sense of time capsules within time capsules, as the playwright/actor's own memories of late 60's and early 70's lunar explorations, fused with more recent nostalgia for the late 90's, when the play (first staged in 2000) was being written.

While the isolation of the protagonist Phillipe, a 42-year-old failed PhD candidate obsessively researching the Soviet cosmonaut era and dealing with the death of his mother, is still poignant, what struck me was how, 12 years on, we have invented so many more ways to be alone.

Technology has isolated us even further, and there is almost a kind of quaintness to the scenes in the laundromat, where Phillipe washes his dead mother's clothes, mentally transforming the circular machine alternately into a birth canal and a spaceship -- the elevator, where his younger yuppie brother is trapped with his childhood memories -- or the old landline telephone that Phillipe uses for his telemarketing temp job.

Indeed one of the play's most powerful scenes centres around a random phone call he makes to a woman who turns out to be his ex-girlfriend. In the midst of selling a newspaper subscription (also a bit retro in our digital age), the two catch up in a few minutes, relating major milestones of love, death and birth. But at least it's voice to voice. Today it might all happen in the blur of a Facebook chat.

But despite the odd slowness of this production -- two hours of meditative reflections feels too indulgent in our flashier, instant age -- there is much to mine philosophically in 2012.

The play's exploration of the tension between the banal and the profound transcends its 90's Quebecois roots (brilliantly referenced in the scene where Phillipe waits to meet a Russian cosmonaut in a Montreal bar, and balks at the possible 12:30 a.m. closing time saying "are you part of English Canada now?").

It's a tension Philippe struggles to contain. Like a Gurdjieffian exercise -- or patting our heads and rubbing our tummies -- juggling our place in the cosmos with going to the laundromat or feeding a goldfish, it's also a universal struggle to get that balance right.

Especially these days when the banal and the profound blur so readily: reading online about predator drones in Pakistan, and then cruising Facebook for relief with stupid cat photos. Have we reached the apotheosis of distraction?

The scene where Philippe writes down a postal address he hears randomly on a TV show while ironing his clothes is another retro moment. And yet this leads to his ultimate vindication. The address is for the head office of SETI (the Search For Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) who are soliciting videotapes about life on earth to be broadcast into space: greeting from earthlings to aliens. In a surprise twist at the end of the play, we learn that while his PhD has been refused yet another time, his video (which features a banal yet poignant tour of his one bedroom apartment) will be broadcast into the cosmos.

And so the tension between the banal and the profound is echoed in that between the seemingly random and the "significant" -- who knows which is which? The play offers examples of the tyranny of time -- Phillipe's "chance of a lifetime" to lecture in Moscow is foiled by a schedule mix up -- while a chance tuning into the television results in his vision of the world echoing into the universe- and our attempt to revolt against it, as in Philippe's mother's intentional death.

And yet what Phillipe is really after is a sense of human connection and meaning in an otherwise random universe. In a flashback scene to the early 70's when the last Apollo mission landed on the moon, a young LSD-infused Philippe gazes up at the night sky, and sees the moon "bleeding." At once he's struck by the "blood" connection between the moon and the stars, and longs for one with his own kin.

Besides being a play for those of us who feel like aliens in our own family, Far Side of the Moon is also about having the courage to move beyond the narcissistic instinct to see our own reflection in the heavens, but rather to gaze fully into the void and still find meaning there.

As Phillipe points out, the difference between an astronaut (merely an "ambitious" adventurer) and a cosmonaut (someone who looks for order and beauty in the universe) lies in our own ability to look beyond the shiny televisual surface and into the darker "disfigured" side.

The play's message still rings true in 2012, and its restaging offers much food for thought. Ultimately, it recalls another line from another offspring of la belle province. In Leonard Cohen's Stories of the Street, he sings,

"We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky, And lost among the subway crowds I try to catch your eye."