Something has to be up when a show about Hans Christian Andersen has the detached, clinical title

The Andersen Project

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Certainly, such a show can't stray far from those beloved tales such as The Little Mermaid that have been translated into Disney animation and constitute some of society's most basic mythology. Besides, didn't the show's creator, Robert Lepage, also direct Cirque de Soleil? Surely, The Andersen Project, which opens Thursday at the Merriam Theater, is fanciful at the very least.

Well, try him. Some of Lepage's more personal works have titles such as Needles and Opium. Over The Andersen Project's four years of touring the world, audiences could easily expect anything but what they have gotten, which is Lepage's tragicomic look at the seedy underworld of Paris peep shows and drug dealers. Mermaids are, indeed, absent from this unvarnished story of a modern writer's coming up against artistic discouragement that parallels Andersen's singular life.

"When I hear children laughing in the audience, I think 'Oh God!' You have to be 16 or more to appreciate the show!" says actor Yves Jacques, the central actor in The Andersen Project. "Don't bring your children."

"It's not crude or violent . . . and it's not trashy," Lepage explains. "It's darker, and that's the part of Andersen's life that interested me."

Lepage's pieces create distinctive, complete worlds that have made him one of the most fascinating talents of his generation. He was first glimpsed as an actor in the film Jesus of Montreal, but was also part of the performance art movement in Needles and Opium, about Miles Davis and Jean Cocteau. Lepage's numerous acclaimed films (seen mostly in Canada) include Le Confessional and Possible Worlds.

The commission for the Andersen work came from the author's hometown, Odense, Denmark, to celebrate the writer's 200th birthday in 2005. No doubt Lepage's fantastical high-tech production manner was seen as a good fit with Andersen's magical inner world.

But artists write what they can (as opposed to what they're asked to) and Lepage was stymied: The standard Andersen biography yielded not a single inspirational spark, he said recently by phone. Then he happened on a later bio that decoded Andersen's diaries and documented his extensive (and homosexual) sex life.

Tall, slim and effeminate, raised by an indigent mother who died of alcoholism, Andersen was fated to be an outsider. For much of his adult life, he kept on the move, traveling throughout Europe and, most purposefully to Paris, where he sought literary respectability.

From that, Lepage created an alter ego, a mild-mannered Quebecois lyricist who has been hired by the Paris Opera - with promises written in sand - to write an opera libretto based on Andersen's story "The Dryad." Like Andersen, the Quebecois writer, also longing for artistic validation, is an outsider if only because he's an albino.

"Robert wanted somebody that children would laugh at," says Jacques, "just as Robert was laughed at. . . ." As a child, Lepage suffered alopecia - a disease causing complete, permanent hair loss - and he grew up wearing wigs.

Often one to improvise scripts into being, Lepage also evolved a polar-opposite character for Andersen: The hard-bitten, duplicitious but fabulously witty top administrator of the Paris Opera. Both characters are played by Jacques, the show's sole actor - emphasizing the aura of loneliness around all things Andersen.

Other characters - a girlfriend, a drug addict, children and spouses plus a dog and its psychiatrist - are suggested by one-way phone conversations, or, in the case of a dog, by a leash seemingly connected to nothing but wandering around the stage.

Typical of Lepage, scenic elements are suggested by cutting-edge stagecraft requiring 17 technicians who create an entire world around a single actor. "Sometimes I feel like I am a technical device," said Jacques, whose face is projected and refracted in various ways in The Andersen Project. "You get to be very humble."

None of which is out of character, either for Lepage (who once performed a one-person, high-tech Hamlet titled Elsinor) or the un-Disneyfied Andersen. The author's stories are discussed, and the audience learns about some of his quirks: He always carried a rope in his suitcase to have a lifeline should the hotel catch on fire.

That's a setup for the climax of The Andersen Project, and it evokes what Lepage sees as a theme in the Andersen stories: Animals and quasi-human characters have the happy endings; conventional people with dreams and desires do not.

"All of his endings are extremely tragic when it concerns human beings," says Lepage. "Animals are all about life. But even toys in human form, such as in "The Little Tin Soldier," end up melting in the fire. All are pure, loving characters who end up suffering in a certain way."

In at least one sense, The Andersen Project is mainstream: Its two-hours-plus length is terse compared with Lepage's latest eight-hour theater piece, Lipsynch, a magnum opus now playing at Toronto's Luminato festival and arriving Oct. 3-11 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Lepage had an epic budget in the $35 million Cirque de Soleil show titled Ka, now permanently installed in Las Vegas. He's currently preparing his production of Wagner's 16-hour Ring cycle for the Metropolitan Opera starting in the 2010-11 season.

So when The Andersen Project begins its scathing critique of the backstage opera world and how creativity is squelched by the bureaucracy around it, Lepage has literally been there. His production of Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust, seen last season at the Met, began life at the Paris Opera where much of The Andersen Project is set.

Lepage bemusedly recalls what was required just to hunt down a cup of coffee on his first day of rehearsal in Paris: "It was on the very top floor, near the roof. I'm curious by nature and took the elevator that stopped at every floor. The first floor was all lawyers. The second was the union representatives. All the artists - the chorus members and dancers - were way down in the basement . . ..

"Opera is always an interesting microcosm of how society and politics work."

The conservatism that sets in during economic downturns is said to be impeding the fund-raising for his Ring among the old-guard Met donors. That's news to Lepage.

"It's going well. Absolutely," he said. "We know it's going to shake the basis of the more conservative operagoers. But I think that Peter Gelb [the Met's general manager] is doing a wonderful job of convincing people. He maneuvers very well."

And the production? Beyond the basic settings suggesting volcanic Iceland, all Lepage will say is, "It'll be crazy and fun."

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.