The Glass Eye at LuminaTO

Review by Erin Klee

I met Louis Negin, co-creator and solo performer of The Glass Eye (which played at this year’s LuminaTO festival), in a coffee house a couple months ago.

We discovered each other under the best of circumstances; I knew nothing of him, and he knew nothing of me. We had each glanced up from our morning coffees and noticed the other. (He had disheveled white hair, inquisitive eyes, and a newspaper; I extricated myself from a backpack heavy with books and an ever-present laptop computer.) We both smiled. I can’t recall who spoke first.

That conversation was the beginning of my deep respect for Louis. (I think he also liked me – but I’m still not entirely sure.) Like many prominent artists, Louis seemed acutely aware of his public persona, unsure if he should trust. In that dialogue (and others that followed), moments of intimacy were tempered by theatricality.

Louis can be maddeningly evasive. But he can also be disarmingly warm.

He’s a man to be savoured. And his show at Harbourfront – co-created with the brilliant Marie Brassard – is an apt incarnation: enigmatic… mercurial… engrossing… unforgettable.

As the performance begins, Louis stands on a long red carpet behind a classic silver microphone. He sings in Hebrew; one hand covers his head, holding an absent yarmulke. It feels like a serious ritual – but then the prayer transforms into a Hollywood litany: Carmen Miranda… Vivian Leigh… Gretta Garbo… Paul Schofield… Marlon Brando. It’s an exhaustive list of women and men who have become icons, embodying the fame Louis desired.

The Glass Eye is an encapsulation of a life. Precisely whose life – and which moments are fact or fiction – is difficult to say.

Episodic in nature, the play is a series of shifting stories. Some stories are culled from Louis’ work in theatre and film; some are inspired by moments he shared with others – mostly lovers – in the four decades he lived and worked with the entertainment elite.

As a solo performer, Louis transforms like quicksilver, embodying the voices of men he once loved. He also regresses (evocatively) into younger versions of himself.

It isn’t always clear which character Louis is embodying in a specific moment – but the ambiguity feels right. The evening has the flavor of a dream (or a film). Characters shift like aging memories, grafting art and artifice.

The quality of Louis’ performance is matched by the attention to detail in the production’s design; the set, video, sound, and lights are constructed with great care.

Antonin Sorel’s elegant set evokes the best iconography of cinema, theatre, and vaudeville. Red velvet curtains – strangely sensual – frame a white video screen. The long red carpet and classic microphone (where Louis first appeared) remain in place on one side of the stage; on the other side is a black leather chair, silver floor lamp, and a low table (cluttered with stacks of paper, a glass of water, and a martini). The stage is theatrical but comfortable: a place where a man accustomed to the spotlight can relax – and revel.

The video (designed by Sophie Deraspe) is often literal… sometimes abstract… and compelling throughout. Even her most simple images are deeply affecting. (A close-up of a man’s hands cutting bathing-suit-clad figures from a catalogue becomes an expression of a young man’s nascent sexuality. A man studying his nose in a mirror becomes a powerful critique of racism – as Louis looks for the Jewish “defect” he was cruelly told he has…)

In moments like these, Louis truly radiates.

His radiance – more than any other element of The Glass Eye – is what I find most compelling. I have rarely seen a character take on such life; on more than one occasion, Louis’ performance brought me to tears.

Veiled by his fiction, his truth resonates.

The show has finished its run with LuminaTO, but keep your eyes open for a remount. It’s well worth seeing.

Image by Catherine Chagnon

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