I’ve been thinking a lot in recent weeks about exactly what constitutes great theater, as I work on a personal theater project with TAC Teatro and its director Ornella Bonventre; and as I just had my story published in The Stage all about Paris’s 30 minuscule theatres of fewer than 50 seats; and after also seeing yet another piece in one of those theaters last week. The latter was the one-man-show enacting the “Diary of a Madman” by Nikolai Gogol at the Tremplin Théâtre in Montmartre. Some of these thoughts came to me during and after that production, directed by Stéphanie Slimani, with the actor Sylvain Zarli, attempting to adapt the classic Russian story to the stage using many of the elements of physical theater, including the introduction of another character beyond the human presence in the form of a dog puppet.
And it is this question of text vs. physical action that really preoccupies me. Most of the plays we see in Paris have to do with the text, and the talk the actors do around that text. The use of the physical to express another world is far too often an afterthought. This is where “Frontière Nord” director, and founder of the Théâtre de l’Evidence, Cécile Atlan, not just excels but in my view works like a virtuoso.
The play took place at the Cartoucherie in Paris’s 12th arrondissement, in an annex space of the famous Théâtre du Soleil, founded and run by Ariane Mnouchkine since 1970. (Actually, her company was founded in 1964, but they have been at the former munitions factory since 1970, in a wonderland of theater that if you have not yet been there, you have to go.) The atmosphere of the place is more than convivial: Food and drink is served before and after the show, the room probably seats a maximum of 100 or so people, and you can usually meet the artists afterwards for a drink. The show was also presented in conjunction with the ARTA (Association de Recherche des Traditions de l’Acteur) research center at the Cartoucherie.
The live music is provided by the “Trio Zéphyr,” also based in Montpellier. Trio Zéphyr consists of three women string players – violin, viola and cello – who have been performing together for 19 years, and whose vocals are as sweet as their stringed instruments. The music comes from a rich assemblage of classical, modern and world music influences, and while it was composed by the trio for the trio – Marion Diaques, Claire Menguy and Delphine Chomel – and not for the play, Atlan worked specifically with pieces she chose or the trio suggested, adapting the performance and the pieces together.
The synthesis of the whole is just stunning, as the music adds brilliant drama to the already dramatic situation: The sudden appearance of a wall being built to separate people from the north and the south – and everywhere in between. It is a multiracial cast, too, by the way, with a total of eight actors – three men and five women – plus the trio of musicians, always present and visible off to the side, and sometimes involved practically physically in the action.
I cannot emphasize enough the quality of every element of this show: The actors are 100 percent in character the moment they arrive onstage, and the intensity of their performance is practically physically palpable throughout. The show was about 90 minutes long, and I was not bored for a moment. It was the third show I have now seen in the last year in this room – ranging from a fabulous amateur group’s production to the most recent show of Odin Teatret, called “The Tree” – and it kept me dreaming and asking questions and confronting ideas throughout (as had Odin’s show).
In many ways, I felt like I was watching a piece of ancient Greek theater, with the fabulous use of a chorus technique that continued throughout the play, and consisted of three or four characters speaking in unison much of the text. It was a highly stylized production, disconnected from everyday reality, that lifts the spectator into a world about as far from popular text-based theater as you can get.
The use of the puppet character was also beautifully done and added another dimension, and of course it is not surprising since early in her career, Lebeau had studied puppetry. Having started as an actress the 1960s, the Québecoise began devoting herself to writing plays in the mid-1970s and is now one of Canada’s most successful playwrights, especially as an export. I found it very interesting that at the same time as the main Théâtre du Soleil is putting on the production that became a huge controversy in Canada of the play “Kanata” – its Québecois director, Robert Lepage, was criticized for doing a play about the country’s indigenous people without using an indigenous actor (he is using Mnouchkine’s troupe, which personally makes sense to me, but that’s another story) – this other theater at the Cartoucherie is staging a play by another Quebecois that SHOULD be noticed by as many people as Kanata because of its very important subject matter in our day of Trumpian walls…but also, fittingly, in this day of the “Gilets Jaunes.”
“In this story,” said Atlan (in my translation from the French), “the building of a wall destined to create a border has dramatic consequences: Loss of jobs, uprooting of populations, isolation of families, suffering of children…the work exposes the question of freedom, and what humanity does with it. This wall leads to all of the barriers, both visible or invisible, that deprives humankind of its liberty.”
The play, appealing to almost all the senses – it also has fabulous costumes, by the way – and through a physical theater of an exceptional level, manages to communicate this message to the spectator in a powerful way that the written word or current events alone cannot come close to. That, I suppose, is precisely what makes great theater.
at the Théâtre du Soleil, from 08 to 24 February 2019