A loss of love can knock the world askew. That truth registers physically in “Needles and Opium,” a visually breathtaking production by the Canadian writer-director Robert Lepage. Running through Saturday at the Kennedy Center — where it kicks off an internationally focused Spotlight on Directors series — “Needles and Opium” unfurls almost entirely within what appears to be a floating cube. Often evoking a gritty room or hallucinatory mindscape, the cube repeatedly tilts and revolves, turning sloping floors into slanted walls, horizons into flanking perspectives, and otherwise evoking the experience of disorientation.
We encounter that experience in the lives of three characters over the course of the 95-minute show, a reworking of a 1991 Lepage creation that is now produced by his multidisciplinary company, Ex Machina. A frame tale follows a Quebecois actor named Robert (Olivier Normand), who is doing voice-over work in Paris in the aftermath of a devastating breakup. Desperate to recover, Robert looks to the life and work of two historical figures — France’s Jean Cocteau and America’s Miles Davis — who endured both romantic bereavements and drug addiction, but nevertheless produced great art.
In between funny-and-poignant glimpses of Robert’s Parisian ordeals—insomniac nights in a cheap hotel, a session with a hypnotist—we see Davis (Wellesley Robertson III) acclimatizing to a heady love affair in Paris, then slipping into heroin addiction back in the States. Striking a more upbeat note are Cheshire Cat-like appearances by Cocteau (Normand), who recites brightly and oracularly from “A Letter to Americans,” a text he wrote after a trip to America, around the time that Davis was visiting Paris. (The play is in English, other than a few sequences in French with English surtitles.)
In one surreal scene, Cocteau acquires an extra set of arms, allowing him to simultaneously smoke, hold a book, and gesture with Gallic expressiveness. (Normand nicely distinguishes between the confident exhibitionism of Cocteau and the forlorn vulnerability of Robert). Other riveting visual images — Lepage is known for such coups — include a sequence in which Robert seems to hover in outer space, a looming shadow-montage of Davis’s drug paraphernalia, and moments in which Davis clambers on steeply angled surfaces, like a mountaineer in a dream. Moody footage of 1940s New York and Paris sometimes splays across the cube, and a rich soundscape often samples Davis’s recordings.
Connections between the stories resonate poetically. The bewilderment of heartbreak seems to parallel the discombobulation of global travel. Robert’s talk of identifying with the mythical Orpheus, who ventured into the underworld, seems to echo both Cocteau’s oeuvre (the film “Orpheus,” for instance) and Davis’s journey through a figurative hell that, at its nadir, sees him pawning his trumpet.
Despite its exploration of pain, “Needles and Opium” contains a good deal of humor. (Robert’s testy call to a hotel receptionist is particularly funny.) And the show’s interwoven-story format is inherently optimistic: The protagonists ultimately experience a communion that transcends time and space.
Needles and Opium written and directed by Robert Lepage, produced by Ex Machina. English text translation, Jenny Montgomery. Set design, Carl Fillion; props, Claudia Gendreau; music and sound, Jean-Sébastien Côté; lighting, Bruno Matte; costumes, François St.-Aubin; images, Lionel Arnould. About 95 minutes. Tickets $19-$59. Through Saturday at the Eisenhower Theater at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.