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STAGE REVIEW

Moonstruck

The ART poetically explores inner and outer space in a hopeful one-man voyage through 'the far side'

CAMBRIDGE -- When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that's not necessarily amore. If you're the experimental director-auteur Robert Lepage, it's more likely to be a case of cosmic loneliness.

In his highly individualized space probe, "the far side of the moon," Lepage takes us from the earth to the moon in the grandest of styles. Drawing on vocabulary that's poetic in both visual and verbal terms, Lepage meditates on personal loss and universal gain.

The question is how we find meaning and happiness in a life that can seem devoid of both. The answer isn't necessarily any cheerier than it has been for other artists, such as Samuel Beckett, who confronted the void. But there is a large measure of hope, at least, as Lepage's exploration of inner and outer space leads us to a sense of acceptance, if not transcendence.

This is perhaps making "the far side of the moon," which has appeared in more than 50 cities, sound more arcane than it is. Lepage's language is thoroughly accessible, laced with oddball humor and an often dazzling wit -- as when he tries to explain to aliens the difference among single, double, and twin beds.

The story concerns Philippe, a lonely Canadian scientist-philosopher, mourning for his mother and mooning for the moon. His adoration for both the moon and his mother represents a love beyond words, but it's the moon that symbolizes an escape from his mundane existence and the material concerns that so dominate human pursuits, particularly those of his brother, a weatherman who will go anywhere the wind blows, as long as it means fame and fortune.

Canadian actor Yves Jacques has taken over for Lepage as the one actor playing both brothers, their mother, and any other character who pops up along the way. He's accompanied by Eric Leblanc, who unobtrusively manipulates the child-size puppet astronauts that make several memorable appearances. (Philippe prefers the word cosmonauts because it implies exploring the cosmos. He goes on to dismiss his "narcissistic" neighbors to the south for their obsession with reaching a destination.)

Lepage and Jacques were both born in Quebec and speak the same language, which, for US audiences, is English with mellifluous French-Canadian accents. But they also seem joined at the hip artistically, as Jacques adroitly captures the sense of melancholy that hovers over the piece.

A series of blackened sliding panels at the rear of the stage serve as elevators, a blackboard for Philippe's equations, walls of various apartments, and a screen for video projections. They also open up into closets, classrooms, and other locales. Jacques moves in and out of them, changing costumes faster than Cher and moving from one personality to another faster than Sybil.

The moon turns into a portal, which in turn becomes a "2001"-like space pod, a washing machine, a goldfish bowl, and an airplane window, while an ironing board turns into gym equipment and a motor scooter. Lepage also makes mirrors do all kinds of fun-house things, including giving the illusion that Jacques is floating in space.

Add in Laurie Anderson's inspired music, which merges Eastern and Western melodies along with her usual blend of the commonplace and cosmic and you have quite the assortment of sensual thrills that the ART has become famous for.

One image in particular is striking in terms of uniting the various strands. Jacques, dressed as Philippe's mother, opens the door of the washing machine and takes out one of the astronaut puppets. She unhooks the cable of his space suit as if it were her child's umbilical cord and begins to dance with him and wheel him about in the laundry cart. Lepage simultaneously captures the comfort and joy of childhood, along with the sense of awe of exploration. Like much of "the far side of the moon" the moment is quite beautiful.

On the downside, the piece is more than two hours without an intermission and could probably stand to lose a good chunk of material. Lepage's bag of visual tricks begins to get a bit ostentatious and repetitious in the second half.

Also, for a visionary, Lepage's sense of humor can be pretty retro. Andre, Philippe's brother, picks up the phone and starts yelling at his lover only to discover, surprise, it's someone else. And the dichotomy between lonely, soulful character and gregarious creep is as pat here as it is in "Sideways." Andre's whole comic-relief trapped-in-the-elevator episode could be eliminated and the piece would only benefit as the shtick undercuts the mood.

But give Lepage his due and give ART credit for making this piece part of its season. He has created a stunning theatrical work that makes the universe more understandable while also making it more mysterious. You can't ask much more than that from a work of art.

Ed Siegel can be reached at siegel@globe.com.

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