PARIS — Robert Lepage would like you to know that he doesn’t shy away from controversy. To make his point, the Canadian director renamed his latest project, “Kanata,” which was briefly canceled in July after an outcry about cultural appropriation, then revived, and, ultimately, had its world premiere in Paris on Saturday. Now it’s called “Kanata — Episode 1 — The Controversy,” and runs through Feb. 17.
It’s not the only sign that Mr. Lepage and the French company Théâtre du Soleil, which is staging the play, have let the kerfuffle overwhelm them. “Kanata” was supposed to delve into the troubled relationship between Canada’s Indigenous people and their colonizers. The final product does explore the plight of the country’s First Nations, but it does so through the defensive gaze of a white artist who can’t resist telling us that he, too, has been victimized.
Mr. Lepage has been plagued by accusations of cultural insensitivity this year. Performances of his production “SLAV,” inspired by African-American slave songs, were halted in Montreal after an outcry because it featured a predominantly white cast. Then came “Kanata” and an open letter from Indigenous artists and activists, published in the Quebec newspaper Le Devoir in July. In it, the authors accused Mr. Lepage and the Théâtre du Soleil of seeking to tell their stories without Indigenous input.
Shortly after, the production’s North American co-producers withdrew their financial support and it was called off. (Activists said that they never asked for that to happen, only for inclusion.) In September, however, Ariane Mnouchkine, the founder and director of the Théâtre du Soleil, announced that the company would stage the production after all, as part of the Festival d’Automne, a yearly arts event in Paris. Ms. Mnouchkine used the opportunity to rail against what she called the “censorship” of the play in Canada.
There are sly references to the debate in the first scene of “Kanata — Episode 1 — The Controversy,” but the first half of the production sets up promising characters. Mr. Lepage is fond of telling stories through shifting perspectives and mixed media, and he weaves together a series of loosely related subplots. Most of them center on Hastings Street in Vancouver, in British Columbia, where a character of Mohawk descent, Tanya, prostitutes herself to finance a heroin addiction. She is estranged from her mother, Leyla, who works in a museum. Tanya befriends Miranda, a French painter, while a serial killer, based on the real-life murderer Robert W. Pickton, lurks in the background.
The characters allow Mr. Lepage to touch on several issues that have affected Canada’s Indigenous people: the large number of missing and murdered Indigenous women; the prevalence of substance abuse; and the forcible removal of Indigenous children from their communities, a practice that continued until the 1980s. The production isn’t especially subtle in addressing those issues, however. The murderer is a brooding caricature, and the scene in which he kills Tanya in his van is both predictable and over the top, with bloodcurdling screams and blood splattered on the window.
Until that point, “Kanata — Episode 1 — The Controversy” is merely a passable play, with practically none of Mr. Lepage’s usual inventiveness. The transitions are clunky, with multiple set changes, all handled in full view by the Théâtre du Soleil’s large troupe. The dialogue has little flow to it, and the acting often felt artificial on opening night. (Ms. Mnouchkine came out for a preshow speech, in which she asked the audience to think of it as “a final rehearsal” for the cast.)
After Tanya’s death, however, Mr. Lepage tacks on overt meta-references to the “Kanata” uproar that divert attention from the Indigenous story lines. Miranda decides to paint the murdered women and to exhibit her work at a local community center. At the last minute, managers realize Miranda hasn’t asked the families of the victims for permission and — wait for it — they cancel the exhibition.
“Our history has been stolen from us for 400 years,” one Indigenous character says. “Expect some strong reactions.” One can hear Mr. Lepage reply through Miranda: “I’m an artist! These women moved me as human beings, not Indigenous people.”
At one point, the painter laments: “Nowadays, to understand a black person, you have to be black! To understand a Jewish person, you have to be Jewish!”
The line echoed Ms. Mnouchkine’s own words in an interview with Le Devoir: “If we start saying ‘We Jews’ or ‘We blacks’ because of our legitimate bitterness about the past, we will only reproduce the same crazy irreparable suffering.”
The French director’s stance isn’t unusual in her country, where the notion of cultural appropriation isn’t widely recognized. (Unsurprisingly, there were no protests at Saturday’s premiere.) It’s also in keeping with the universalist ethos of the Théâtre du Soleil, a utopian collective founded in 1964. It employs actors from diverse backgrounds, and its productions have often taken inspiration from foreign cultures.
The company’s brand of humanism was shaped at a time when oppressed minorities had few opportunities to make their voices heard, however. The times have changed, and it’s disheartening to see Mr. Lepage and Ms. Mnouchkine, both celebrated directors with an international following and significant power, dig their heels in and cry censorship instead of engaging with a community.
“Kanata — Episode 1 — The Controversy” ends with Miranda alone in her studio. As she starts to paint, she conjures up a ghostlike Tanya who is reunited at last with her mother. The tableau, well-meaning though it is, enshrines Miranda as a white savior who transcends divisions and a painful history through art. Remind you of anyone?
Kanata — Episode 1 — The Controversy
Through Feb. 17 at the Théâtre du Soleil, Paris; festival.automne.com.
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