Amou Tati by Tatiana Rojo, directed by Eric Checco at Les Francophonies en Limousin 2015, Limoges. Photo credit: Christophe Péan.
Volume 6

A Fall in France

The fall of 2015 marked several major events in France that will not be soon forgotten. The tragedy of 15 November and the sudden passing of Swiss director Luc Bondy on 28 November left a sense of emptiness in both the city of Paris and its theatre world. As we mourn these losses, however, I would also like to recognize the theatre I had the good fortune to experience there in September and October.

2015 World Puppet Theatre Festival

First, the biennial World Puppet Theatre Festival in Charleville-Mézières, held from 18 September to 25 September 2015 brought together over 6,000 attendees to enjoy productions from artists and companies from five continents, representing countries as diverse as Belgium and Brazil, as well as a number of groups from the host country. There was such a large turnout that many productions sold out right away. However, even without tickets, puppetry performances could be experienced everywhere you looked, with numerous street performers, including a students from the local École nationale supérieure des arts de la marionnette (Esnam) and l’Institut international de la marionnette (IIM). Highlights from my visit included a squid, a bird, a monkey, and mud. The giant bird puppet floated over the crowds, supported from below by an operator wearing a metal frame on her back, flapping the wings with rods. Squid was a Kafka-esque French performance by the Compagnie Pseudonymo. Reminiscent of the full-body snake puppets in Malian Sogó Bó, the female monster seduced a male explorer before overpowering him with her giant tentacles. Marking the lunar eclipse during the final weekend, a performance of Rahoo, the Legend of the Lunar Eclipse was performed by the Thai puppetry company Joe Louis Theatre, telling the story of how Hanuman, the white monkey king from Hindu tradition, wooed his lover. The lavishly decorated wood and papier-mâché puppets were deftly operated in Bunraku-style by three operators each.

Count to One by Yase Tamam at the Festival Mondial des Théâtres de Marionnettes, Charleville-Mézières. Photo credit: Mani Lotfizadeh.

Count to One by Yase Tamam at the Festival Mondial des Théâtres de Marionnettes, Charleville-Mézières. Photo credit: Mani Lotfizadeh.

Lastly, an exceptional puppetry experience was provided by the Iranian troupe, Yase Tamam. Count to One followed three soldiers playing in the mud over the course of an afternoon, as bomb explosions reverberated around them. The performers, dressed in military fatigue and helmets, each operating a turntable station piled high with clay or “mud.” Before our eyes, they molded, squashed, and sculpted anew trains, palm trees, and human and animal figures on the perpetually-spinning turntables. With impressive speed, they tossed mounds of clay across the stage to one another, adding one car after another to a train that spun around on the edge of a turntable, then rapidly constructing and destroying a city. Still, at last, in the final tableau, they lay down under a clay palm tree they had sculpted at center stage.

Les Francophonies en Limousin

Limoges’s annual festival, Les Francophonies en Limousin, featured dozens of productions, readings, and roundtable discussions of works from across the Francophone diaspora. Two crowd-pleasers featured the talents of African actresses: Tatiana Rojo’s one-woman show Amou Tati, la dame de fer, directed by Eric Checco, and Aristide Tarnagda’s Façons d’aimer, with Lionelle Edoxi Gnoula and Safourata Kaboré. Both pieces offered insights into the situations of women in West Africa. In the first, Rojo hilariously played out the laments of an Ivorian mother, Michelle, who sells eggplants and manioc at the market and struggles with preparing her daughters for the challenges of life. As part of Rojo’s French tour, this performance offered “an inverse exoticism,” (as the program termed it), forcing a French audience to laugh at themselves. By changing one costume piece at a time, Rojo transforms from “the Iron Lady” into each of her daughters, and even into the men they know. Through the mother’s eyes, Rojo illustrates her daughters’ encounters with white society, serving in a Parisian restaurant or auditioning as a dancer for The Lion King. In this way, the customs of the audience are made strange as we consider western society through a West African perspective.

The second play tells the story of a young woman who was born without a right hand, played by Lionelle Edoxi Gnoula. Society treats her as an outcast: she is considered cursed for her deformity and assumed to be a witch because she is left-handed. She leads a troubled life until a man finally takes her as his fourth wife. She feels at peace for a time, until he marries another wife—a white one. At the start of the play, she has killed her husband and his new wife. She recounts her story from prison, in a dialogue with her mother, (who is also one-handed), played by Safourata Kaboré. The performance took place in a small black box theatre, where the intimacy with their audience enhanced the powerful performances of Gnoula and Kaboré. Both women wore rope bracelets marking the missing hands. The atmosphere was further intensified by the gentle guitar music played by David Malgoubri in the back corner of the theatre, and the chain smoking of the actresses that filled the small space with haze. The moving piece, artfully directed by the playwright, reflects realities for women in Burkina Faso and cultural beliefs of the region, as well as universal feelings of oppression and defiance.

Comédie-Française, Fall 2015

The three shows I attended at the Comédie-Française’s mainstage theatre, the Salle Richelieu, had full, attentive, and appreciative houses, with the exception of the first, whose house was about two-thirds full. The House of Bernarda Alba marked one of the new shows this season, as well as the entry of Lorca into the famed French theatre’s repertoire. This double novelty may account for the reserved attendance. Director Lilo Baur’s production offers the spectacle of ballet with original music and sound design by Mich Ochowiak. The scene is dominated by a striking lace wall that imprisons Bernarda’s daughters and creates mysterious silhouettes. In the early moments of the play, for example, light shines through the lattice from behind, evoking a sense of lightness in a freedom unavailable to the women. Later in the play, the mimed stoning of a pregnant girl is carried out upstage of the drop, and the broken shadows of the performers pierce its delicate patterns. The visual images remain impressive throughout the production, reinforcing themes, such as when white robes waft down to the stage from above, reflecting the girls’ innocence, or when the girls climb up the lattice as if it were an ensnaring spider web. Andrew D. Edwards’s set design is matched by the flowing costumes designed by Agnès Falque and the hazy lighting by Fabrice Kebour. The Swiss director concentrates her production on the desires of the young women in Lorca’s 1936 play, emphasizing the oppression of the women due to social conventions. The daughters’ lust, defiance, and sadness are echoed throughout the play, as if they were a female chorus echoing the sentiment: “To be born a woman is the worst punishment.” These emotions are made visceral when Maria Josefa’s (Florence Viala) face is isolated in a hole in the lace wall, frozen in a silent scream, and when the youngest daughter, Adele (Adeline d’Hermy) slides down the wall into the arms of Pepe le Romano (Sébastien Pouderoux and Elliot Jenicot, alternately) for their amorous dance. While the twentieth-century Spanish playwright might offer a strange voice in a theatre company accustomed to the French classics, it will be interesting to see what future productions of the play might offer to the Parisian scene.

House of Bernarda Alba by Federico García Lorca, directed by Lilo Baur at the Comédie-Française. Photo credit: Brigitte Enguérand.

House of Bernarda Alba by Federico García Lorca, directed by Lilo Baur at the Comédie-Française. Photo credit: Brigitte Enguérand.

A Comédie sociétaire since 2010, Loïc Corbery leads the casts of both Molière’s The Misanthrope and Marivaux’s The Double Inconstancy. His strong presence is palpable in both productions (and I would wager this was also the case when he played Don Juan in 2012). In Clément Hervieu-Léger’s production of The Misanthrope, Corbery captures the audience’s sympathy as a depressed intellectual, more of a struggling artist than a grumpy old man. Molière wrote the play in 1664-65, at the height of the Tartuffe controversy, and it was around this time that he fell sick, had a falling out with Racine, and began to suspect his young wife of infidelity. The play has often been read as autobiographical, but this production dismisses that interpretation, presenting Alceste as a passionate young lover. When Molière first wrote the piece, he gave it the subtitle, “l’atrabilaire amoureux,” which was dropped when the play text was printed. Hervieu-Léger, however, interpreted the play through the subtitle: the atrabilaire refers to black bile, which, among the humors, corresponds to the feeling of melancholy—here, melancholy from love.

The Double Inconstancy by Marivaux, directed by Anne Kessler at the Comédie Française. Photo credit: Brigitte Enguérand, courtesy of the Comédie-Française.

The Double Inconstancy by Marivaux, directed by Anne Kessler at the Comédie Française. Photo credit: Brigitte Enguérand, courtesy of the Comédie-Française.

As Corbery performs Alceste, he is a misunderstood, introverted artist. His social malaise is visible when he crosses his legs and hunches awkwardly over the piano, playing wistful tunes, or huddles alone in a recessed window along the upstage wall. His lugubrious piano playing is contrasted in one of the few comedic moments in the play when Acaste and Clitandre (Christophe Montenez and Sebastian Pouderoux) play and sing a ditty over Alceste’s ranting. Corbery’s costume enhances his awkward mannerisms: a grey suit and a long overcoat with a green liner. It fits loosely, emphasizing the gangly nature of the actor’s long limbs. This juxtaposes with the bright red and green tight-fitting velvet suits of Acaste and Clitandre, Eliante’s (Jennifer Decker) petite plum dress, and Célimène’s orange party dress and matching heels that she wears after the first act.

The costumes, designed by Caroline de Vivaise have an unencumbered, modern feel to them that compliments the architecture in Eric Ruf’s set. The abandoned house, with distressed white walls and metal pipes along the ceiling, is populated sparsely by furniture pieces, a chandelier on the wooden floor, and covered paintings variously set against the walls. After the first act, the chandelier is raised, the window and the furniture uncovered as the house becomes repopulated with Célimène’s guests. The vastness of the space is reinforced by the stage left stairways leading upstairs and downstairs and the large windows that line the upstage wall. To the left of the door on the second level, a window allows the audience to see characters entering and exiting; it also offers a spot for Alceste to spy on the others and provides a light aperture that reflects the mood of the moment. Like Pascal Sangla’s music, Bertrand Couderc’s lighting design is symbolic: when the light is white, the atmosphere is chilling and hopeless; in scenes of intimacy, the lighting is warm amber. This light lingers in this one space in the final moments of the play, maintaining one last hope for a happy ending over the grey and dismal set, until Célimène, realizing that Alceste has gone, closes the window for good.

Next to Corbery’s burdened Alceste, d’Hermy’s Célimène is light and free, a sense that resounds in her playful young voice. The intensity between the two contrasting personalities—and indeed a strikingly dark moment of the production—comes when, in one quick gesture, Alceste grabs Célimène roughly, holding the hem of her dress in one hand and her torso in the other, as if he were prepared to violate her. As he releases her and turns away, we realize that he is, in his own way, confessing his love to her. The piece does not feel like a comedy at all, in fact; it feels more like a realist drama. The delivery of the verse dialogue flows naturally, the rhythm subdued. And while there are moments when the characters, particularly the women, laugh amongst themselves, the audience rarely participates.

Both Corbery and d’Hermy prove equally enchanting as the Prince and Silvia in Anne Kessler’s metatheatrical production of Marivaux’s romantic comedy. This is the first production by Kessler for the main stage, although she has had success in the studio theatre (Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier) with Flowers for Algernon for which she won the 2013 Palmères prize for the best production. For those of us who have taken the historical tour of the Comédie-Française, the set is immediately recognizable as the upstairs rehearsal room. Over the course of the performance, the rehearsal stand-in elements are replaced bit by bit by “final” costumes, set pieces, and props. As we watch, the actors play, as in a rehearsal, discovering their parts. Thus the audience is not only offered a privileged view of the private areas of the theatre, but of the elite actors’ development process as well. Jacques Gabel’s set is a thoroughly detailed replica from the balcony and chandeliers to the busts and portraits on the walls. Both Arnaud Jung’s lighting and Nicolas Faguet’s sound design help create the realistic effect of the production, the former reflecting the sun setting outside the balcony windows, and the latter the ambient sounds such as sirens and car horns throughout the performance.

The playful nature of the rehearsal is felt from the start, as one of the students plays “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” on the trumpet, and the cast members enter in their street clothes. In a particularly charming moment, Corbery strips to take a “bath,” sitting atop two chairs, (wooden with red velvet seats, of course), facing each other with a sheet hanging over them. A student kneeling below hands Corbery a glass of water to make splashing noises and a jar of bubbles to blow. Another student holds a lamp over Corbery to spotlight him. A large screen clarifies the directorial concept by indicating the date and rehearsal number, starting with the earlier dates, eventually leading up to the date of the current performance. This screen is used variously as a mirror reflecting alternate views to the audience, as in the moment when the Prince is bathing, and to project supposedly live video feeds of the actors who are in the hallway about to enter. In one particularly fun moment, we watch the backs of Stéphane Varupenne as Arlequin and Eric Génovèse as Trivelin at the upstage wall where the balcony would be; we also watch a front view of their scene projected on the screen. Other reminders of the “rehearsal” motif pop in from time to time when the actors check their cell phones or smoke a cigarette.

With each act, elements of the costumes, designed by Renato Bianchi, and the props are replaced. The Prince gets a military jacket and Flavinia (Florence Viala), a muslin skirt and bodice, then a blue dress. The students (Pénélope Avril, Vanessa Bile-Audouard, Théo Comby Lemaitre, Hugues Duchêne, Marianna Granci, and Laurent Robert) fill the stage more and more with bushes, trees, and flowers. Some “improvised” elements remain later on, such as an electronic fan used as a guitar. The performers seem to enjoy playing onstage and are delightful, particularly Varupenne and Viala, who dance along with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” in the film, Shall We Dance projected on the screen behind them. Kessler uses games to develop staging for her production, as she explains in her director’s note in the program, “Very often, you only perceive [the sense of the play] in a game situation.” This parallels her view of The Double Inconstancy, where “Marivaux wants to write the story of a complot; nothing better resembles a complot than the creation of a theatre production.” In the case of this production, the games are the staging. After enjoying the development process in this way, as entertainment in itself, only one question remains for the audience: Where are the director and stage manager?

Peter Brook’s Battlefield

On 17 October, I caught the final performance of Peter Brook’s Battlefield at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord. The short play, co-written with Marie-Hélène Estienne, resurrects the director’s seminal production of The Mahabharata from 1985. Unlike the epic production, however, the four actors told one simple narrative, in the large “empty space” of the theatre, decorated only with several bamboo poles propped against the back wall and a drum awaiting Toshi Tsuchitori on the stage left side. The program explains that the reason for retelling the story is that “although in the past, [it] reflects at the same time the very difficult and innumerable conflicts that destroy our world today.” The house was packed with Parisians, who were appreciative of Brook’s work. The show was performed in English with surtitles, and some profited from the cross-cultural opportunity to hand out flyers advertising for their English language classes to exiting audience members. However, having read Rustom Bharucha’s views of Brook’s intercultural appropriation, I wondered if others in the audience were awaiting a piece in answer to the Mahabharata criticism.

The production was a condensed version of the epic. At the end of the war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, when nearly everyone has been killed, Yudishtira (Jared McNeill) must take over the kingdom from Dritarashtra (Sean O’Callaghan). The old king is blind and bears witness to the gory details of the war as they are described to him. In response, he exiles himself in the forest with Yudishitira’s mother (Carole Karemera). Before they leave, they, along with the grandfather (Ery Nzaramba) prepare the reluctant successor by teaching him important lessons through parables, often with animals, as in the story of the snake. Yudishtira becomes a successful and popular ruler, offering gold to the poor.

Oria Puppo’s costumes were plain long black cloaks with different colored scarves: Karemera’s was red; O’Callaghan’s brown. The virtuoso actors used few props to tell their stories, such as one pole for a walking stick for the blind king and a cloth that Karemara bundled up to become the baby that she sends down the river. The final moment of the play felt almost spiritual, as the actors sat and turned to listen to the drum solo. When Tsuchitori finished, he bowed his head, and there was a long moment of silence and stillness before the audience cottoned on that it was the end of the play, and gradually broke the silence with applause.

A View from the Bridge

Since Ivo van Hove’s production of A View from the Bridge has transferred to Broadway, I will say only a few words on the French performance I attended on 16 October at the Odéon’s black box theatre, Ateliers Berthier, in a contemporary translation by Daniel Loayza. The French production featured Charles Berling and Pauline Cheviller, effectively playing out the eerily intimate relationship between Eddie and Catharine. Cheviller bounced around the stage sweetly and into Berling’s arms, causing the audience to recoil a bit when he tickled her.

Arthur Miller’s play, set in Brooklyn in the 1940s seems, perhaps, unlikely to translate to the Paris stage. Although they related sympathetically to the strong performance of Berling and the tragic situation he creates for himself, the audience members remained aware of the foreignness of the play, laughing every time a character referred to the United States, for instance when Rodolpho (Nicolas Avinée) exclaimed, “Je veux être américain.” Yet even before the tragic events of November, concerns over the refugee situation in Europe were already prevalent in culture and politics, therefore Miller’s treatment of the theme of xenophobia resounded in an unexpected way on the stage. Van Hove’s minimalist staging in a Japanese-style setting with its striking visual images brings into focus the connections between the characters and underlines the political motif that translates profoundly to the concerns of today in France and in the U.S.

Ivanov

I’ll end with a look at the other Odéon production I attended, of Chekhov’s Ivanov on their mainstage. Luc Bondy had been the director of l’Odéon since 2012, and this was, sadly, his last production. Ivanov (Micha Lescot) is, from the start, isolated from the rest of the world, literally by a huge grey wall. He sits on a stool, marking the wall with chalk, as if he were counting off the days he has been imprisoned. As Daniel Loazya’s program notes explain, Ivanov is haunted by the ghost of his former self who is “forever lost on the other side of the wall.” In the midst of the party in the second act, he sits on the stool, separated from the revelers even though in their midst; while they dance, he contemplates life and death with his head in his hand like the Thinker.

Ivanov by Anton Chekhov, directed by Luc Bondy at The Odéon-Théâtre. Photo credit: Thierry Depagne.

Ivanov by Anton Chekhov, directed by Luc Bondy at The Odéon-Théâtre. Photo credit: Thierry Depagne.

When the wall lifts, it reveals an appropriately cavernous environment for the despondent Ivanov: a storage space but not a living space, filled with empty wooden frames, crates, and stacked furniture items on the sides. The stage is dark with only isolated spots of light from two hanging lamps at center stage; it is dominated by sharp lines and angles, with no visible doors for egress. The set, designed by Richard Peduzzi, with lighting by Bertrand Couderc, recalls an Edward Hopper painting with dark, vacuous space and the overwhelming sense of loneliness it evokes. The despair looms over the scene, even in the second act, during the party with a lavish red carpet, chandeliers, and candles that seem to flicker as little votives of hope. The original wall returns for the last three acts but a door has opened at its center, so that it feels like a loading dock—a place of embarkation. But for Ivanov, there is nowhere to go. He crawls on the floor in his wedding tuxedo and bemoans, “What a child I am.”

The costumes designed by Moidele Bickelactor are simple and drab. Ivanov, for example, wears a black shirt, jeans, boots and a jacket that fits a bit snugly, as if he could not afford one that fit. Anna (Marina Hands) wears a blue grey blouse that makes her blend in with the house, as we see her sitting alone in the window. This image returns later on when she spies Ivanov kissing Sacha (Victoire DuBois) in act 2. All the men wear grey or black, perhaps compatriots in Ivanov’s ennui. The exceptions are the optimistic and childlike Borkine, (Laurent Grévill), and the naive doctor Lvov (Yannik Landrein), who might be at home one hundred years ago with his foolish goatee and young face.

In this way, the production plays on contradictions with parallels in design elements and actions. For example, Borkine rides a bicycle around the stage while Ivanov remains still, withdrawn, keeping his hands in his pockets or in his jacket. Borkine knocks over a box and falls off his bicycle in act one, and in the second act, the dancers knock over the cake in a similarly messy moment. The music, designed by Martin Schültz, is a funeral processional at the start of the play, sounding the omen of Anna’s impending death and of Ivanov’s own, when it returns at the end, cleverly juxtaposed with the wedding march. When Ivanov reveals to Anna that she is going to die, she clings to him, crying; he later weeps in Sacha’s lap, clinging to her. Similarly both act 3 and act 5 end with the wall shutters closing off the life and light: first on Anna, then on Ivanov. At the end, Sacha, dressed in her wedding gown, remains isolated in this shaft of light. As it diminishes, she slowly removes the veil.

Rehearsal of Ivanov by Anton Chekhov, directed by Luc Bondy at rehearsal at The Odéon-Théâtre. Photo credit: Thierry Depagne.

Rehearsal of Ivanov by Anton Chekhov, directed by Luc Bondy at rehearsal at The Odéon-Théâtre. Photo credit: Thierry Depagne.

Ivanov condemns himself before the audience can. He turns to address the audience and the lights rise on the house before he says, “I am a bad man.” However, Lescot’s nuanced performance evokes sympathy from us, rather than repulsion. He is disgusted with life, and perhaps we relate to that. The theatre was packed, including the balconies, and the audience was particularly appreciative of this powerhouse performance, which won him the 2015 award for the best performer in a play from the Syndicat de la critique. For Bondy, the production proved to be a final success, garnering the Prix Beaumarchais 2015 for the best theatre production from Le Figaro.


Heather Jeanne Denyer is a dramaturg and translator of French and German with experience in producing play readings, as well as in critical and creative writing. She is a Ph.D. candidate in the Theatre and Women’s Studies programs at the CUNY Graduate Center and has written for Theatre Journal.


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European Stages, vol. 6, no. 1 (Spring 2016)

Editorial Board:

Marvin Carlson, Senior Editor, Founder

Krystyna Illakowicz, Co-Editor

Dominika Laster, Co-Editor

Kalina Stefanova, Co-Editor

Editorial Staff:

Elyse Singer, Managing Editor

Clio Unger, Editorial Assistant

Advisory Board:

Joshua Abrams
Christopher Balme
Maria Delgado
Allen Kuharsky
Bryce Lease
Jennifer Parker-Starbuck
Magda Romańska
Laurence Senelick
Daniele Vianello
Phyllis Zatlin

Table of Contents:

  1. Hamlet in a Curious Nutshell by Maria Helena Serôdio
  2. Alvis Hermanis Productions in Latvia and German-Speaking Countries by Edīte Tisheizere
  3. The Unknown, the Unexpected, and the Uncanny: A New Lorca, Three New Catalan Productions, and a Few Extras by Maria M. Delgado
  4. 2015 Dance Week Festival and Contemporary Croatian Dance by Mirna Zagar
  5. Archives, Classics, and Auras: The 2016 Oslo International Festival by Andrew Friedman
  6. The Stakes for City Theatres: Linus Tunström’s Farewell to the Uppsala Stadsteater by Bryce Lease
  7. Life is Beautiful? or Optimistically About Bulgarian Theatre? by Kalina Stefanova
  8. The Multiple Dimensions of the Bulgarian ACT Independent Theatre Festival 2015 by Angelina Georieva
  9. Theatre in Berlin, Winter 2015 by Steve Earnest
  10. Musical Theatre in Berlin, Winter 2015 by Steve Earnest
  11. Gob Squad’s My Square Lady at the Komische Oper by Clio Unger
  12. New Productions in Berlin by Yvonne Shafer
  13. Manifest for Dialogue: Antisocial by Ion M. Tomuș
  14. A Fall in France by Heather Jeanne Denyer
  15. The Iliad as an Oratory: A Warning to a Civilization by Ivan Medenica    
  16. Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill at the Royal Court Theatre by Rosemary Malague
  17. Bakkhai at the Almeida Theatre reviewed by Neil Forsyth

www.EuropeanStages.org

europeanstages@gc.cuny.edu

Martin E. Segal Theatre Center:

Frank Hentschker, Executive Director

Marvin Carlson, Director of Publications

Rebecca Sheahan, Managing Director

©2016 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

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