Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Watch Me Fall

Hard to forget Evel Knievel. His hugely mediatized, death-defying stunts and Stars and Stripes costumes made him an icon of the American Seventies. According to Wikipedia, he attempted some 75 ramp-to-ramp motorcycle jumps between 1965 and 1980 and suffered 433 broken bones. His most memorable feat, as it nearly killed him, was his jump (or crash, rather) over the Caesar's Palace fountain in Las Vegas on New Year's Eve, 1967 (he spent a month in a coma). Stunt artist, entertainer, self-promoter and freak show of sorts, Knievel is the object of a different sort of publicity in "Watch Me Fall", by Bristol duo Action Hero, the final act of the program of British theater invited by the Théâtre de la Ville for the mini-festival known as Chantiers Europe.

A tongue-in-cheek dive into Knievel's motives, ambition and personal marketing machine, the 50-minute show uses pop culture's performance codes to question a social desire to indulge voyeuristically in extreme feats. In fact, as its title-cum-command indicates, "Watch Me Fall" places the public center stage, as much a focus of Action Hero's concerns as Knievel's indestructible rogue. Equipped with disposable cameras distributed at the door and standing around a downsized, home-made model of one of Knievel's jumps, the audience is constantly encouraged to clap, cheer, photograph and show its support for the legendary daredevil's feats of derring-do.

The show electrified in the UK with its interactive premise and its ironic take on larger-than-life personas, but fell far short of that response at the performance I saw, where, true to its own cultural codes, the public of Parisian twenty-somethings engaged mildly with the actors, at best. Interestingly however, their reaction proved Action Hero's premise right: if it is human nature to derive strange pleasure from seeing other people take risks and experience pain, the audience barreled into that cliche by, at one point, pelting Gemma Paintin with the plastic golf balls her character was collecting off the floor. When mores are pushed and barriers shaken, propriety too flies out the window.

As short and as elliptical as it was, the piece was far more engaging than the public would allow however, from James Stenhouse's boyish good looks to Paintin's silently suffering stuntman's showgirl, with a smart text that sends-up braggadocio and ABC Sports Specials as easily as it jumps a child's mock-up of the Caesar's Palace fountain (fashioned from an inflatable wading pool and two jumbo bottles of Diet Coke). "Watch Me Fall" is an invitation to see humanity at its most human: reaching for the moon but gravity bound.

June 14-16, 7 pm, Théâtre de la Ville, 2 place du Châtelet, 4e, Métro Châtelet, info:

Photo Credit: Toby Farrow

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

ChantiersEurope: British Drama in the Spotlight

What do Antonin Artaud, Ophelia and Harold Lloyd have in common? The answer is at ChantiersEurope, a mini-festival of European theater at the Théâtre de la Ville, showcasing British, Italian and Portugese companies. The event is the first in over 10 years in Paris to train a spotlight on contemporary theater from the UK, and a recent visit turned up some interesting surprises...

The first comes from Katie Mitchell, who won the 12th Europe "New Theatrical Realities" prize in St. Petersburg, Russia in April (see April 20 post below). Known for her meticulous research, savvy use of video technology and keen study of Stanislavsky's acting method, Mitchell presents an installation commissioned by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London that develops all three. In "Five Truths", alternatively known as "The Ophelia Project", Mitchell directs a single actress, Michelle Thierry, through five versions of the suicide of Hamlet's girlfriend, attempting in each scenario to explore a different approach to the theater act. Video runs simultaneously on 10 screens of Mitchell and Thierry's work to bring into focus Shakespeare's briefly glimpsed waif, in the styles of Jerzy Grotowski, Peter Brook, Antonin Artaud, Bertolt Brecht and Constantin Stanislavsky. For neophytes and specialists both, the experiment proposes illuminating comparisons and contrasts of the ideas of these five giants of contemporary theater. An acerbic music hall number à la Brecht faces a mute Ophelia overcome with grief in the manner of Grotowski's exploration of performative elements of ritual, Brook's poetry stands out sharply against a mad Ophelia such as Artaud woud have envisioned her, while Stanislavkian method acting certainly appears the most familiar and "normal". Thierry's versatility and Mitchell's painstaking direction and filming lift this intellectual exercise from academicism to a fascinating moment of theater.

A more traditional piece, though only in the sense that it takes place live on a stage, comes from the Compagnie 1927 and a show half-way between silent film and contemporary animation. Its title, "The Animals and Children Took to the Streets", doesn't reflect much about the content of this story in which the children of a tenement block known as Bayou Mansions are kidnapped and force-fed drugged gum drops to keep them quiet and obedient. In fact, a simple plot description captures nothing of the color, sass and faux archness of this delightful piece created by the combined talents of animation artist Paul Barrett, actress Suzanne Andreade, soprano/pianist Lilian Henley and actress/costumer Esme Appleton. Andreade who conceived, wrote and directs the piece, plays a number of wicked ladies of the housing block on Red Herring Street with malicious airs, opposite Appleton as a wide-eyed Lilian Gish type crusading for justice and the return of her child. Barrett's animation paints a richly hued backdrop for the Bayou Mansion's residents, most of whom come to life through paper doll silhouettes, as fanciful complement to the live actors, and his multi-media compositions (of the paint and paper variety) add a graphic punch to this perfectly naughty tale of crime and corruption in the big city. Barrett's portrayal of the Bayou's caretaker, a sympathetic Harold Lloyd outcast with an Edward Scissorhands wig, adds a self-effacing counterpoint to the women's confident aplomb and deliciously exaggerated tongue-rolling. Compagnie 1927 had its first success in 2007 at the Edinburgh Festival (5 awards) and seems to find a confident ease in its artistically rich style with this latest work.

Both shows offer a tantalizing glimpse of contemporary British theater and are in no way overshadowed by the main event of ChantiersEurope: "I Am the Wind", created at the Young Vic Theatre of London under the direction of Patrice Chéreau. Tom Brooke and Jack Laskey form a compelling couple as two men, One and the Other, caught in a personal struggle between life and death. With the open sea as a dangerous metaphor for despair and fear, Chéreau finds a balance between situational context and Fosse's psychological tension by setting the characters intermittently afloat on a sideways monolith of a raft, which aptly underscores an undercurrent pulling between metaphysical weight and lightness. Fosse's rhythmic text is their life-buoy, an intermittently rising and falling dialogue on the reasons to live and an inexplicable pull to choose not to, until it knocks one of them off his feet. A spare and pure production carried by an exceptional duo: reason enough to give ChantiersEurope a look, with more shows next week.


Photo: Director Katie Mitchell directs Michelle Thierry in "Five Truths". Credit: Gareth Fry

Friday, May 27, 2011

"Pan + "Songe": Dreaming with Irina Brook

Neverland is J. M. Barrie's world of insouciant freedom from adult cares that only exists through a child's power to believe. In one fundamental way at least, Peter Pan's decision to never grow up is an obvious metaphor for theater, because like Neverland, it works only if the audience suspends its attachment to reality. Irina Brook has "carte blanche" in May and June at the Théâtre de Paris to create her fantastical worlds, in "Pan" and in "En attendant le songe".

In "Pan", Irina Brook builds instinctively on both themes, creating an explicit vehicle for the childhood wonderment that lies at the core of her vision, one which comes organically from her lifelong relationship with the theater. With a title that evokes the mythological origins of Barrie's character rather more than Disney's green-bonneted sprite, the production nevertheless is very much for children, even if Brook's characters many not be immediately recognizable to them (such is the power of Disney iconography). In "Pan", Captain Hook and his crew are better musicians than they are evil sailors, for example, with more pranks than villainous plots, while Peter and the Lost Boys are a comical band of circus acrobats and clowns. The changes set the tone for this production; fantasy, physical grace and plenty of laughter guide her ship, through crocodiles, pow-wows, battles, and Tinkerbell's jealous machinations. The set clearly sets up the contrast: on the one hand the Jolly Roger looms above the actors, on the other a carrousel is their playground. Fairies really fly and so do Wendy and John, all because they believe. In Brook's "Pan" that belief is infectious...

And it carries over into the second work she is presenting: "En attendant le songe". This is a revival of Brook's 2007 production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream", where a merry band of companions, here the fictional Compagnie internationale d'Athens, provides again the narrative structure for a revisiting of Shakespeare's text. The all-male troop excels at cross-dressing and gags of all sorts in yet another Fairyland created here with a simple trunk of colorful scarves, proof again that Irina Brook is a magician of her own sort, able to transport us, whatever her chosen means, to the land of dreams.

"Pan", Tues-Sat, 8:30 pm, Sun, 3:30 pm, 17-42 euros, "En attendant le songe", Tues-Fri, 9 pm, Sat, 5 pm & 9 pm, Sun, 3 pm, 28-36 euros, Théâtre de Paris, 15 rue Blanche, 9e, Métro Trinité d’Estienne d’Orves / Blanche, tel:

Photo Credit: Patrick Lazic

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Semianyki: They're Back!

The cathartic power of laughter has never been lost on the Russian people, despite, or perhaps because of their momentous history. Through war and repression, clowns from Bim Bom and Karandesh to Yuri Nikulin and Oleg Popov have kept Russians laughing at their pains, while Russia's most famous contemporary clown, Slava Polunin (creator of the international hit "Slava's Snow Show") has built from the genre a dreamlike escape from darker realities. Stalin may have coopted the subversive potential of laughter by creating the Soviet Academy for Political Clowns in 1926, but it is the troupe and school of Polunin's Teatr Licedei which carries the flame of Russian clownery in the world today. Created in 1968 in Leningrad, the troupe forged its style - and aroused State suspicion - on a preference for Western music over Politburo-approved themes of glorious labors, but was allowed to travel and so spread its fame abroad. After an intercontinental "Peace Train" that foreshadowed the fall of the Berlin Wall and a spectacular funeral ceremony to lay the company to rest on its 20th anniversary, the Licedei was reborn in post-USSR society primarily as a clown school, housed today by the Drama Academy of the University of St. Petersburg.

But in this country of revolutions, a smaller kind of overthrow is taking place in the world of its clowns, led by the troupe known as Semianyki (The Family), former Licedei students. Their name comes from the show they created while still in school, a wacky family portrait that easily makes the Adams Family look like the Brady Bunch and which recently celebrated its 700th performance. Great acts are hard to follow but the six clowns of Semianyki (Alexander Gusarov, Olga Eliseeva, Marina Makhaeva, Yulia Sergeeva, Kasyan Ryvkin and Elena Sadkova) are giving it their best shot and enjoying the kind of success that creates more enemies than friends, prompting them to break out on their own, with a theater, the Chaplin Hall, just for them in St. Petersburg, and decorated to their kooky, kitschy taste.

The company's history interests me as I saw the show in one of its early performances and walked the streets of their stomping grounds in St. Petersburg this spring. But with Semianyki, the main thing is the fun - and so much of it - that takes place on stage. The Semianyki are six oddballs : deadbeat dad, mother hen-mambo queen and four incorrigibly mischievous children, right down to the baby. The parents get it on whenever the youngsters' backs are turned, but left to their own devices, the kids have a seemingly limitless repertoire of tortures and annoyances for their genitor. Before Dad knows it, on any given day, he might be clothes-pinned to his chair and speared with a ski pole to prevent him from engaging in his two favorite activities : walking out and drinking. Mom is a matron of popular legend and ethnic jokes, keeping her cherubs in line with withering looks, a sergeant's boot and a fountain of sloppy kisses. The offspring of their unabashedly passionate union are part mad scientist, part chainsaw murderer, and the trouble they can get into is as limitless as it is ingenious.

The Semianyki write a devilishly hysterical send-up of any parenting book ever written but the gags are really only a pretence: love and togetherness ultimately carry the day. That the message comes through loud and clear despite barely a word being spoken is proof of the ingeniousness and generosity of these unparalleled clowns who draw the audience immediately into their nutty world, not only with abundant opportunities for interaction but with powerfully evocative images and richly drawn characters. We are only too happy to stay under their spell, an ingenious left-handed homage to the joys, fears and crocodile tears of childhood. If you can't catch them now, look for their return, by popular demand, in November. Brilliant!

To July 2, Tues-Sat. 8:30 pm, Sun, 3 pm, Théâtre du Rond-Point, 2 bis, avenue Franklin D. Roosevelt,
8e, Métro Franklin D. Roosevelt ou Champs-Élysées Clemenceau,10 euros-34 euros, tel: 01 44 95 98 21.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights

"Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights" has the hand of its creator, Gerturde Stein, all over it. The title alone sums up her two obsessions: power and repetitive language. On the one hand there is the doctor who bargains dangerously with Mephisto, not, in Stein's retelling of the legend, for the love of Marguerite, but to master electric light. On the other is the kind of sing-songy word play that made the self-proclaimed mother of Modernism's reputation as a different sort of "illuminée".

Director Ludovic Lagarde confronts both features of her work in his version of Stein's opera libretto (1938) of the Faust legend. The terrain is well-traveled; even if Stein's work never found the audience she hoped for in her lifetime, her Faustus remake has tempted theater visionaries the Wooster Group, Richard Foreman and Robert Wilson. Where these others explored rather more her ontological theories regarding consciousness or their own theater aesthetic, Lagarde's production concentrates on her seemingly irrepressible repetition of ordinary words and phrases, what she called "insistencies", and shows that if Stein were alive today, she'd finally find fame as a pop music lyricist.

The show is indeed more concert than play, with a set that looks like it came from La Cigale down the road instead of the Bouffes du Nord: a raised backstage with keyboards and drums, center-front solo mike, neons, strobes... The lights come up on Faustus in a Mick Jagger pose and Mephisto excels at Keith Richards-style jumps and leaps across the stage. Stein challenged herself in her libretto to write a recognizable narrative but the audience is soon wondering who exactly are the strange pairs that join them through the smoke swirls and blue and yellow flashes. First, Boy and Dog, here a British schoolboy with a Nintendo-generated companion, followed by the always popular Marguerite Ida/Helena Annabel, who is herself the very embodiment of one of Stein's insistencies.

As always with Stein however, content takes a back seat to form, something Lagarde recognizes in his embracing of rock opera's cliches, which are like an open book in which Stein's phrases write their hypnotic and teasing musicality. Rodolph Burger's score throws rap and rock beats and pop's tonal angst at Stein's text, which embraces them all and loses 70 years of dust in the process. Playing further on the rock genre motifs, Lagarde's direction gives free reign to the sexual metaphors of Marguerite (etc.)'s predicament: stung (or bitten, the distinction is important) by a serpent between the legs.

Stein's theme of modern man's fear of progress is not obviously present among everything else happening on stage, except for the lonely figure of Dr. Faust and the glowing electric candles that form the stage's backdrop. Lagarde's attention falls more on the love story between Marguerite (etc.) and her Mr. Overseas Man. They are backed up by an eclectic cast of many contrasts and doublings, from the diminutive Annabelle Garcia as the sweet-faced Boy with troublingly confusing gender attributes, Stéfany Ganachaud's controlled and enigmatic Dog, whose canine features are made possible by a kind of futuristic Roller Ball costume, and Joan Cocho's monkey-like Mephisto in black t-shirt and jeans. Samuel Réhault's anomic Faust is the least interesting in his leather trenchcoat weighed down by Faust's arrogance.

As Marguerite Ida/Helena Annabel sang her name for the hundredth time at the performance I attended, audience members started to mildly panic, clutching at programs and watches: proof that, taken as literature, Stein's circular experiments can still challenge Cartesian order. Lagarde's production has the merit of hinting very strongly however that Stein's concerns are not so different than those of many a Grammy winner or MTV star: it's the music that matters.

To May 22, Tues-Sat, 9 pm, Sun, 4 pm, Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, 37 bis, boulevard de la Chapelle, 10e, Métro La Chapelle, 14 euros-28 euros, tel:

Photo Credit: Guillaume Gellert

Monday, May 16, 2011

Krystian Lupa's "Fin de partida"

The work of Samuel Beckett is a famous teaser. That the author of the theatrical conundrum of the 20th century, "Waiting for Godot", insisted that there are in his work "no symbols where none intended" (to paraphrase his novel "Watt"), has never much eased the public's anxiety of meaning when faced with his plays and fiction. If the Irish playwright's estate has worked tirelessly to reign in any and all over-zealous interpretations of his work, it still remains as difficult to refrain from dissecting Beckett as it is to resist gawking at an accident. "Endgame" which followed "Godot" by eight years, revisits many of the themes and situations of that defining play, such as dependency, suffering, inevitability, stasis - and no redemption from any of these - with a foursome of characters, here all physically impaired. "More inhuman than Godot" according to its creator, "Endgame" asks again how it is possible to live if there is no meaning to be found in what is commonly called life.

Regarded as one of the most important artists of contemporary European theater, Polish director Krystian Lupa comes to "Endgame" at the height of his work and influence, and his "interpretation" begs us consequently to sit up and take notice. Beckett's text imagines the blind and infirm Hamm, his servant Clov, and Hamm's maimed parents, Nell and Nagg, in unspecified grey and desolate surroundings on the edge of a sea. Some liberties Lupa takes include casting Clov as a woman (who asserts her femininity at the play's end) and replacing the trashcans Nell and Nagg are relegated to in the original, with glass-sided rolling boxes that are equal parts gerbil cage and casket. Hamm's house becomes an abandoned cement bunker, empty of furnishings save his wheelchair and a jarringly ornamental chandelier. The sea that Hamm and Clov listen to from the tiny windows has also pressed itself inside, in the form of a sand dune that partly obscures the doorway Clov enters and exits from, prompting him to swing in and out like a monkey (Clov has also been interpreted to mean "clown"). In addition, natural light reaches to the hard corners and dusty floors of their concrete shelter and does indeed bathe Hamm's face at the play's end. Could "hope" be far behind?

Certainly not, because, despite these deliberate choices, Lupa's production, with the Teatro de La Abadía of Madrid, excels at doing what Beckett claimed his work must: resist meaning. Enclosed within the faded green walls and menaced by the encroaching, inhospitable environment, the characters of this "Fin de Partida" exude a kind of absurdity that belies more typical representations of Beckett's existentialism as wholly pessimistic while never denying that their existence is no more than a farce. Susi Sanchez's Clov is a malicious teenager who throws biscuits at Nagg and laughs loudly at their daily frustrations, José Luis Gomez is a dryly cynical Hamm, a playground king in his dilapidated chair, black beret and glasses, while Nell and Nagg (Lola Cardón and Ramón Pons), all in white, farily radiate purity, one would dare say human attachment, into the mix. That is to say that, relieved of some of its darkest suggestions by Lupa's direction and set, Beckett's text gains in complexity. If death is obviously intimated by Nell and Nagg's coffin-like boxes, which slide into the wall as in a mausoleum, these also have an air of the glass caskets used in Catholic churches to enclose holy relics, while the whole set could be a gas chamber. Lupa opens the door to a variety of extrapolations. Similarly, Clov's final feminine elegance starkly contradicts the character's previously slouchy, juvenile delinquent air. "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness", says Nell. That mystery sums up Lupa's vision.

Contrasts may abound within Lupa's production but all the sunlight in the world can never change the blunt power of Beckett's language, even in translation. Since the opportunity presents itself currently, some interesting comparisons stand to be drawn with Alain Françon's "Fin de partie" featuring an all-star cast led by Jean-Quentin Châtelain and Serge Merlin, at the Théâtre de la Madeleine, until July 17.

"Fin de partida", in Spanish with French subtitles. May 13-18, Tues-Sat, 8:30 pm, Sun, 3:30 pm, Théâtre Nanterre-Amandiers, 7 avenue Pablo Picasso, Nanterre (92), RER A Nanterre-Préfecture, 12-25 euros, tel: "Fin de partie", to July 17, Théâtre de la Madeleine, tel:,

Photo Credit: Teatro Abadía/Ros Ribas

Friday, May 6, 2011

Sounds of Silence

A number of reprises are in Paris in May and I'll be revisiting them here.

One of these, "The Sound of Silence", at the Théâtre de Chaillot for just three performances (previously at the MAC-Créteil in 2008), I first saw at the 2007 Europe Theater Prize in Thessaloniki, Greece. It was a creation by Alvis Hermanis, from Riga, Latvia, and a co-winner of the "New Realitites" Prize that year. In interviews at that festival, he revealed himself to be the odd child of Communist propaganda and Sixties idealism. Artistic Director of the New Riga Theater, he first spent 10 years focusing on classical productions, but these led him to make a self-described "radical shift", from adapting texts to creating a "theater of emotion" that explores private space and "real life".

The work that brought him international attention, "Long Life" (2003) is a case in point. The play delves into the everyday minutiae of five individuals sharing a post-Soviet-era communal apartment. Audiences, limited to a relative handful, entered the theater via the set, and were supplied opera glasses to dwell at leisure on the extraordinary jumble of objects, furniture, detritus and general miscellanea that the set contained, over the course of a three-hour, wordless performance.

The prequel to "Long Life" is "The Sound of Silence", which jumps back 40 years to a brief moment of Sixties-era bohemia, symbolized for Hermanis by Simon and Garfunkel's 1964 song of the almost same name, or at least insofar as it trickled into Soviet-controlled Latvia. Written in the aftermath of John F. Kennedy's assassination and pin-pointing a collective anomie, the folk hit came at the beginning of the Sixties political, cultural and sexual upheavals. These represented an even bigger danger in the Soviet bloc countries than they did on American college campuses, and Hermanis considers what life might have been like for his parents' generation, before the intensified Cold War hostilities of the early Eighties and the exacerbated economic and cultural stagnation that resulted across the USSR. Experimenting again with silent theater, in a 3hr15min attempt through music and gestures but no dialogue, to take the pulse of that fleeting moment, Hermanis seeks to tap into the era's utopianism to deliver a more "human dimension" to the theater act and our experience of it.

Hermanis is gaining increasing attention throughout Europe. A recent collaboration with theaters in Naples and Bologna under the auspices of the European Union's Prospero Project led to an Italian adaptation of Polish writer Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz's short story "The Wilko Girls" (1933), created in Modena in January 2010 and touring to European project member cities.

May 4-6, "The Sound of Silence", 8 pm, Théâtre national de Chaillot, 1 place du Trocadéro, 11-32 euros, tel: