Right, I know what you all must be thinking.
“Effie, that is clearly not Paris in that photo.”
Correct. In fact, I am currently writing this post from inside the main reading room at the New York Public Library.
Why am I here? Well, a family member is getting married this coming weekend, and since the wedding coincided with the Toussaint holidays, I figured I’d come out early and spend a couple days in one of my other favorite cities.
(And yes, it goes without saying that, other than seeing friends, a big motivation for spending a decent amount of time here was motivated by food. Especially pizza. And bagels. Seriously, Paris really needs to up their game when it comes to the latter. The pizza offerings are pretty good—especially if, like me, you really like Neapolitan-style pies—, but sometimes you just really want a bagel with cream cheese and lox and tomato and onion…)
As to the rest of my life, I’m not entirely sure why I let things (aka grading) pile up as much as they did, but between that and hacking through more chapter writing (albeit rather slowly…writing longhand first before typing everything up tends to do that), I haven’t really found a moment’s peace to commit to writing on the last five shows I saw since my previous post.
Given that, the write-ups are going to be a bit more brief than usual, as there is quite a bit of ground to cover and not a whole lot of time to cover it in. Besides, I’m not entirely sure that a multi-page treatise on each of the shows would be particularly attention-grabbing.
Anyway, let’s start with the first : Richard Maxwell’s Paradiso at Nanterre
First things first, despite the name, this play has nothing to do with Dante’s Divine Comedy (even though, as with Dante, this is the third part of a trilogy of works). What is presented here, rather, is an exploration of the post-human, that is, what remains in terms of form of expression after an eventual apocalypse. For this production, the playing area (I’m not entirely sure one could call it a ‘stage’ for reasons I’ll explain in a bit) of the salle transformable was covered with a white flooring, on the edge of which were arranged three rows of simple wooden benches. There were no raked seats, no ‘gap’ between the playing space and the first row of seats. We were all blended, or gathered, into the same delimited area.
Other than the benches, the space was relatively bare, save for a screen onto which subtitles were projected (the performance was in English). Oh, and a pickup truck. Yes, at the start of the show, the large factory doors were opened, and a silver pickup drove in to music that could best be described as at once ethereal and futuristic. The truck took a few turns about the open space before the driver engaged in the always frustrating endeavor of parallel parking upstage left.
And yes, before any of you ask, he did do that thing where you just keep backing in and out and slightly readjust the wheel so you turn like a quarter-inch, but even that isn’t enough so you pull out and readjust again by about a hair and…god it almost makes one want to yell enough already (if said person wasn’t also giggling at the sheer banality of this gesture).
Anyway, once the car finally stops, one of the back doors opens and out comes—or more precisely “rolls”—not one of the actors but a little robot. A little robot on a rudimentary four-wheeled apparatus, whose “eye” was what looked to be a web camera (but one from about five or six years ago). This is our first introduction to the piece: a machine who speaks in a cadence familiar to those who have ever played around with the read-aloud function on a word processor. Artificial, cold, precise, devoid of subtext even when the words actually being said could—assuming the “human” was not removed—have been spoken in such a way so as to convey some “deeper meaning about life”.
I put this last bit in quotes because one of the things the piece concerns itself with is precisely this question of “profound meaning”, especially once the human characters—four of them, an older woman, an older man, and two girls around my age—come in and start speaking in platitudes themselves, but in such a way that evoked the kind of stereotypical community theatre performance style parodied in Waiting for Guffman than anything that was supposed to convey something beyond “these are phrases that sound important but in the grand scheme of things really don’t mean much.” It is the human transitioning into its own obscurity through speech. Hell, the ending—if one could call it that—involved the “family” getting back into the car and driving back out into the street, leaving the little lonely robot in their wake. Said robot then began printing a very long receipt of text, though not the text of the script itself.
There was no curtain call, no bows, no moment of congratulations for the cast. Eventually, as the robot kept printing, some audience members tentatively got up to inspect the writing, constituting an “end” if there ever was one.
I mean, if the concept of storytelling is a human construct, do its conventions still hold once humans disappear?
While you all ponder that…let’s move on to Mama by Egyptian playwright Ahmed El Attar, performed on the main stage of the MC93.
Ooooh boy where to start with this one…
On the one hand, the exploration of the dynamic between mother and son in Arab/Mediterranean/Levantine (or even former Ottoman) cultures is one that resonates rather well with me (Greek and Middle Eastern/Arab cultures have quite a few similarities as far as this is concerned), and deserves to be told.
On the other hand, is it really necessary to, again, place the onus of change onto the backs of women? One of the things El Attar discusses in the show program is the manner in which he feels women in his country are still subject to certain levels of oppression brought on in large part by the distinctly patriarchal/machismo culture in which the society in which they live is structured. Women counteract this, he states, by forming close, influential bonds with their sons, especially the eldest, as it is through the eventual installation of the son as the head of the family that the mother can hope to gain some level of power or control. The problem, however, is that this keeps perpetuating cycles of oppression, as though the mother has an illusion of power through the level of control she exercises over her son, she still does not have access or opportunity to gain equal footing with him, or other men, in general.
What I have an issue with, however, is not necessarily the fact that El Attar pinpoints a certain kind of internalized misogyny that manifests itself in this, but rather his insistence that the responsibility for change is found solely in the mother, as men, he states, will never change and we cannot hope for them too.
Look, whether or not a mother realizes that what she does could perpetuate cycles of sexism/patriarchy/oppression does not change the fact that her efforts will amount to very little if there is not a general overhaul of the sociocultural structure in which she lives by those who actually have power, aka men.
Also, I mean if we want to talk about giving women more of a voice and influence, perhaps we could start with the fact that this play presented a story centered on Egyptian women, but that was written not by a woman but by a man. Give women a seat at the table, let them speak of their experiences themselves, of how they see their place in the world, and then we can talk.
I was not really a fan of this production, but I don’t attribute this entirely to the fact that reading the program notes before the show started left a bad taste in my mouth. For one thing, the show was in Arabic, but the screen on which the subtitles were projected was placed so high up—the stage is rather tall at the MC93—, that unfortunately reading the subtitles to understand context sometimes meant missing some of the subtle body language cues on stage (and thus subtle evolutions in different characters’ relationships to one another). Second, apparently El Attari is a fan of a collage-style of playwriting (this is the first of his plays I’ve had the chance to see, so I can’t speak to how it did/did not work in other cases), which did not quite work for me. I have a feeling this may have something to do with the fact that the sound cues—our signal as to when a transition was happening—were incredibly off, but the pacing seemed very inconsistent from one vignette to the next, resulting in a piece that was more incoherent than I think it had the intention of being. If we are meant to view in the course of this production a shift in family dynamics as one generation yields to the next, there was a distinct lack of urgency in which every action was carried out that it almost made one want to ask what the point of all this was.
Oh, and then at one point a woman came out and sang an Arabic rendition of R Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly”. Yeah.
Right…show number 3: Maeterlinck’s La Princesse Maleine, this time in the smaller theatre of the MC93.
I’m going to be really brief on this one: melodrama is not my thing. Neither, apparently, is symbolism. I don’t care that there was ice all over the stage, meaning that every time someone had to move at anything faster than a careful walk it became an exciting game of “Try not to slip and break yourself”. I don’t care that there was some rather interesting projection work being done. Having to listen to someone slowly moan out variations of “Oooooooooh nnoooooo” or “Ooooooooh deeeeaaaaarrrr” is not my idea of a fun two hours.
Yeah…we’re just going to chalk this one up to “sometimes we really just don’t end up liking things, and maybe this will just be a play that we will forget about when it comes time to writing the chapter on the MC93 for the eventual dissertation…”
Onto number 4: Affordable Solution for Better Living, at Nanterre (in the design workshop)
Less a theatre piece than a dance/performance art piece with text, this production centered around a single performer (dressed in not one but two of those sheer looking body suits) who spends the first half of the hourlong production building an IKEA bookshelf.
I mean, you really cannot get more banal, sterile or supremely ordinary than a white IKEA bookshelf, or more precisely than the assembly of a white IKEA bookshelf. The thing is designed to be so impersonal so as to fit within nearly any lifestyle. It is a thing without much substance. A pure object. And this man—or rather humanoid creature, as the first of the two body suits has the actor’s face printed on the bit that zips over the head, bringing the whole thing crashing smack-dab into the uncanny valley—places it together with an intricate precision of gesture, any deviation from which results in an error message from a disembodied, robotic, female voice that also at times offers reassuring messages such as “You are a responsible citizen.” “You are doing well.” “Only those who sleep don’t make mistakes.”
After the bookshelf is complete, stagehands unload a few other pieces of white/beige IKEA furniture, and the stage space is thus transformed into the approximation of a “living room” (I’d say the Platonic ideal of a living room, but I don’t quite feel much like discussing Plato’s cave allegory at the moment). The “human” then slowly sheds his first “skin” revealing a second body suit with muscle fibers printed on it underneath. His body as a whole remains recognizable as that of a “Human”, but only a close approximation of one. As he interacts with/climbs on and over his furnishings, he only moves closer to becoming a non-human figure than a fully realized person.
He does, however, have a voice, though it, like the female voice earlier in the piece, is disembodied, emanating from a mic hanging over the stage. His body reacts to his words, but the absence of a moving mouth to bridge the final connection between the voice and its source renders his particular “human-ness” divided.
And finally show number 5: Winter Family’s H-2 Hebron, again at Nanterre, and, as with the previous show, in the design workshop
Here is a quick sum-up of this show: a documentary theatre piece in which one woman speaks the words of four different individuals. It’s polyphony and contradiction, battles for control of a narrative, in the site of a singular body.
Given that the show centers around the conflict surrounding the increased Israeli colonization of the city of Hebron (which both Israelis and Palestinians claim ancestral ties to), the choice to structure the show this way actually makes quite a bit of sense. To be honest, it took me a minute to realize what was going on, as hearing contradictory statements coming out of the actress’s mouth without visible change in inflection to signal a change of character almost made me think my comprehension skills had become inexplicably rusty. Thankfully, I caught on as to what she was doing after a bit.
The space was set in a bi-frontal structure, with the middle being occupied by a long table, covered in a black cloth. This, we would discover, was where the city of Hebron would be built in miniature over the course of our “tour” there. Indeed, one of the inspirations for the writing of this play came from the artists’ experiences encountering various tour groups (oh yeah, war/conflict tourism is a thing) while on a visit to the city, as well as noting the differences not only in information but rather in the way certain information or history was framed. We then, as an audience, were transformed into tourists, though given that we were presented with multiple, often incredibly contradictory narratives, at once, the responsibility in the end was put on us to determine what “truth”, if any, there was to be gained about the situation. There is, in this, an assumption that we who are seated there before our singular yet multiplicitous/fractured “guide” are smart enough to think critically enough in order to unravel the complexities of the situation, which to a certain degree, I find to be a bit more effective than some of the more straightforward didactic theatrical presentations I have seen over the past year. Given the situation at the center of the play, however, I question the limits as to how far such an approach can go. There is a question of active colonialism at hand, after all.
Right, with that, we come to a close on another round of “Effie hurriedly writes things down before she procrastinates even more and the task becomes almost insurmountable”. If you need me, I’ll be downing another coffee…and staring at a small pile of papers that need grading. Work never ceases, even on holiday.