For those who are unaware, there is currently a rather annoying heatwave sweeping through large swaths of Europe at the moment, including France (well, not all of France; Brittany was spared). Now, I’m normally someone who actually quite likes the heat, but there is just something about the lack of open water, as well as the whole living on the top floor of a non-air-conditioned building (as well as the skylight that has no curtain or way of covering it, making any attempts to shut out light during the day useless), and the absolute ‘fun’ of those moments when you absolutely have to take the metro to get anywhere that is starting to test my patience a little…
Bref, I’m ready for my holiday.
I haven’t felt much impulse to write lately, mostly because I have sort of stopped seeing things this last month. The season has, of course, wound down, but I think I also may have come very close to suffering from show-fatigue. Besides, I think I said in another post that I wanted to focus more on writing my other, more relevant stuff.
Speaking of which, I’ve advanced a good amount, but what with end of the year exams and grading–as well as a decision I made myself, which I am ultimately glad I did–I missed an end of May deadline to turn in new pages to my advisor. I have yet to hear anything regarding this from her part, however, so I’m just going to go ahead and assume all is well.
Well, hopefully it will be well enough to send literally all the things by my own personal deadline of July 10th. I’m planning on using a good amount of my vacation time to try and tackle the bits of my dissertation that aren’t show-critique related (aka: the bits that make it all make sense). I’m still trying to figure out what point–if any–I’m trying to make with this otherwise rather sizable collection of somewhat disconnected pieces. The heterogeneity of the theatre space? Probably something like that. Everything existing in multitudes? Also maybe. There’s the whole cultural politics thing to consider in this too, and how it relates back to the idea of a public, government-subsidized theatre. What is the role of a theatre in such a system? There is something to be said about how, given the current system of governance in France, the theatre has returned to somewhat of a ‘moralistic’ role: theatrical programming is designed in such a way to impart values, perhaps, or support certain ideals (‘le vivre ensemble‘ has been on my mind quite a bit lately), and while the content can vary (there is no overt propagandizing, if that’s what you’re thinking I’m getting at), there is, to some degree, a lack of questioning of a certain set of [neoliberal / universalist] values that are often taken as a default.
A better theatre, for me, would be one that recognizes disagreement, the possibility for disaccord or the opening of new avenues or systems of thinking, and, while doing so, shatters the very universality it is otherwise said to stand in for. It’s the question of autonomy and emancipation as it relates both to the work and to the spectator, but it ends up focusing more precisely on the latter, in particular, through recognition of a capacity for singular thought as well as the validity of the choice in whether to engage or not. I’ve seen this kind of theatre here a few times, though funnily enough, none of the productions were from French companies.
And anyway, I’m not sure if the above makes any sense or it’s just rambling. To tell the truth, I’m only writing here now to kill a bit more time before I venture out into the outside world where the temperature reads 93ºF but feels as though it’s 101ºF (of all the things I have accustomed myself to, the only one that is still giving me trouble is switching to reading temperature in Celsius). I had been reading for most of the day, then thought I’d get back to writing, but, wouldn’t you know it…writer’s block. My brain is tired.
Otherwise? I’m feeling…reasonably confident about this. I say a lot that I just want it to be done, but I also want it to be good, and be certain in myself that I have something to say, and am not just regurgitating what others have already said before me. The problem is that sometimes, to me, what I write feels so…obvious…but, then again, maybe that’s how one’s own work (particularly work of this kind) feels all the time. Subjectivity and whatnot.
It’s hard to get the narrative in your own head to change sometimes.
In better news, though, I think I may start frequenting a workout class once a week, depending on what my schedule is like come September. ClassPass has finally arrived here, and the HIIT course I tested today left me feeling absolutely exhausted but also amazing. The home workouts are still fine, don’t get me wrong, but I was starting to miss the thrill of the challenge after a while, as well as the chance to really test my limits.
And I think I’m starting to legitimately go stir-crazy, so I may just bite the bullet now, pack up my things, and march out the door. Normally a walk would suit me just fine in moments like this where I can’t seem to get out of my own head. We’ll see how long that lasts…
I’ve been thinking a bit about cycles recently. This is partially due to the shows I’m going to write about in this post (more on those in a bit), but also to cycles in my writing process.
In short, I’m dealing with writer’s block again (what else is new…I haven’t written anything new in months because research was happening, and then I, like a dummy, assigned a whole bunch of assignments to my students because…reasons), and I’m starting to see blogging as a weird way of both avoiding staring at a blank word document and getting my flow back. Productive procrastination? Maybe. Then again, writing something is better than writing absolutely nothing, right? Right.
And if I’m being honest, part of this is also due to the fact that it’s getting even more real that the deadline I set for myself to finish/defend this thing is slightly less than a year away. The thought that this time next year I will no longer be able to call myself a ‘student’ in any sense of the word is still rather jarring, considering that moniker has been part of my identity in one way or another since I was 5.
What a thought.
I’ve decided to go back to blogging a bit about some theatre I saw recently, not because I’m planning on including these pieces in my dissertation (not sure if I’ve mentioned this already, but I’ve pretty much made my choices on that regard and don’t much feel like changing them), but more because they both address the question of cyclicality, something that is very likely to get brought up in one section of my work.
Also, because one of them is pretty much a demonstration of an auteur suffering from M. Night Shyamalan syndrome. Yes, that judgement is reductive and a bit simplistic, but seriously there are only so many twists and turns and surprise revelations you can shove into a piece before the effect, the ‘punch’ wears off. The best tragedies—and this piece skewed more towards tragedy/melodrama than comedy—work mostly because the turn hangs on one moment. It’s that one Jenga piece chosen after several rounds of play that, once removed, sends the entire tower toppling. Part of the anticipation, the rush of that moment comes from the fact that it was preceded by gradually increased unsteadiness, wobbling of blocks that look as though they are hanging on by a hair yet somehow still hold fast, giving you a false sense of security as to the structural integrity of the whole thing. Having the Jenga tower fall—repeatedly—after only one or two rounds of play deprives the game of said anticipation, of the temptation to make increasingly risky, yet also confident, decisions that prove that you will somehow outsmart physics and gravity.
That said, let’s move on to the first play of this post:
Fauves, written and directed by Wajdi Mouawad, Théâtre de la Colline, May 12, 2019
I’m going to start with something I actually really enjoyed about this piece: the set. Given how…malleable…the form of this piece is with concerns to timelines, the choice to have a moveable set comprised mostly of sets of walls on wheels that could be rotated/displaced/fit together like Tetris pieces was particularly effective, especially with regards to perspective.
In general, the piece is constructed around a series of flashbacks/flashforwards, though several of these scenes are replayed and revisted several times, sometimes played exactly as they were before, sometimes going on for a couple more lines where they left off, and most significantly, sometimes being played again but from a physically different angle, showing us something that—primarily through the staging—remained slightly or entirely out of view until the walls shifted.
Without giving too much away, the primary story involves a man, Hippolyte (yes, yes, I know), who, while in the middle of trying to finish work on his latest film, gets word that his mother has been hit by a truck. Following her funeral, a meeting with her solicitor reveals that the man he thought was his father was not actually his father, his birth father was living in Canada (Hippolyte, meanwhile, grew up in France), and his mother had never actually his birth father, meaning she had been technically committing bigamy for the entirety of Hippolyte’s life. On the lawyer’s advice, Hippolyte heads to Canada to meet the man who fathered him and convince him to sign an act of divorce from his mother.
Those familiar with Mouawad’s work would perhaps not be surprised to hear that, since all the above took place within the first 15minutes of a 3-hour play, this initial surprise concerning Hippolyte’s parentage was not the first (nor the last…) to shake up the lives of not just Hippolyte, but also those of his two children (a son, Lazare, who is set to join the ISS, and a daughter, Vive, who is ostensibly in Syria working with refugees, but from whom no one in the family has had any news in a long while), and a half-brother he never knew existed. Much like with the Greek tragedies Mouawad often draws inspiration from, the trauma in this piece, the violence that propels these characters to let forth the more animalistic sides of themselves (hence the title), stretch back generations, back to an initial act that is at once a betrayal as well as a case of mistaken placement of blame. In order to ‘purge’ the evil, to cleanse the familial line, as it were, a rather dubious choice is made involving the switching of babies, and a resolve to keep the violence a secret in the hopes that not talking about it will cause it to die out.
This latter point is later evoked towards the end of the piece, in a speech made by Lazare prior to his ascent into space (side note: there is a spacewalk sequence in this play), as a means of tying this idea of the damage done of trying to hide violence/danger/tragedy to the discourse surrounding our approach to climate change, in particular how, up until recently, the very real dangers facing our planet have been downplayed. Although the truth can be very hard to swallow, sometimes hiding it can backfire and cause more damage than just ripping the band-aid off—being open about what is really going on, about the ugly that is bubbling under the surface—could do in the short term.
The problem, though, is that although the link makes logical sense, its impact is lost because of how much other ‘heavy’ stuff is also dropped during the course of this piece—especially in the rather loaded first act. I mean once you also throw incest into the mix (and this comes up in two separate instances, though one turns out to be a case of mistaken incest…yeah…process that), I wonder how much more you could do.
And more than the internal cyclical structure of the piece—which actually read more like a film given how much it ‘rewound’ scenes as well as restaged and replayed them—I had cycles on the brain after seeing this because all the themes here are ones that Mouawad has addressed before (and to be honest, last year’s Tous les oiseauxwas more successful in that regard, primarily because it all rested around one crucial, tragic twist instead of…too many). Is there a limit as to how many times you can replay this saga of hidden family traumas based on either a mistake in identity or someone deliberately hiding a part of their/their child’s identity before it becomes…redundant? Perhaps that word is a bit too harsh. It’s a shame too because had the tragedy hinged on one revelation instead of several, the continued replaying/set switching could have merited the urgency with which it was progressing, like a rocket hurtling towards its target.
There was actually a moment when that did come very close to happening. To be honest, if the scene order was reworked a bit to put the crux back onto the one revelation that had a concrete impact precisely because it resulted in one character taking a drastic action based on an assumption that turned out to be both wrong and the most direct consequence of the whole “maybe you should actually talk about things instead of hiding them under the guise of ‘protection’” thing, the amassing of revelations could have worked. The anticipation could have been built up. As such it was just…a lot.
Contes Immoraux – Partie 1 : Maison Mère, concept by Phia Ménard, Nanterre-Amandiers, May 13, 2019.
This second piece is less a play and more a work of performance art, though one centered around a Sisyphean gesture.
Entering the studio theatre at Nanterre, one saw a large piece of cardboard lying flat on the center of the space, with Ménard crouched in the upper stage right corner, looking like a punk rocker circa the 1980s. Once everyone was seated, she got up, grabbed one of several long hooks set up in a bucket nearby, and began to pierce out certain pieces of the large cardboard shape, tossing them off stage right. When all the extra pieces had been dispensed with, it became clear that the cardboard was actually meant to be folded together into a model of sorts (revealed at the end to be a freestanding model of the Parthenon). To accomplish her task, Ménard had at her disposal several support poles of varying sizes (cardboard sometimes does not want to stand like you would like it to…), a generous supply of tape to stick the walls together as they were built up, as well as to pull the whole thing and flip it right side up, and a chainsaw to cut out some slats and create columns.
Now, the thought of watching a woman trying to build a Parthenon out of cardboard and tape for 90minutes might not sound terribly exciting, but honestly, I cannot remember the last time I experienced sitting in an audience as engaged in what was happening as this one. Many of us leaned forward when she started rotating the structure around, gasped when some tape came undone (which happened several times), and let out audible sighs of relief—and giggles—when the thing actually behaved as it was meant to. We, like Ménard, were in those moments united in desiring a similar goal. There was a moment when an entire wall came detached and flopped down in such a way that righting it—again—was going to be incredibly inconvenient. And yet, she persisted. She kept at it. And finally, the thing was up, standing, and she—the punk Athena—sat down to admire her handiwork.
And then a set of sprinklers above the structure went off, drowning it in water, almost comically destroying the thing so much effort was expended on to create. Nothing, the image suggests, matters if the world is about to go to shit because of continued inaction towards climate change.
There is a commentary in this piece about the image of Europe, of the current identity crisis the EU is having, and the difficult (yet still possible) task of working to build it up again. But the greater problem is that none of the work will ultimately matter if we don’t address the greater problem.
At the same time, I do wonder how ecological a show like this—which ran for a few nights at Nanterre—is, given how much water is needed before the structure finally collapses. Is it recycled water? Where does it come from, and what happens to it after? Will the cardboard be recycled? Thankfully, cardboard is a natural material, but was the cardboard used in this piece itself recycled, or was it made ‘new’ (so to speak)?
Plus, just imagining her every night the show is on, starting over, with a ‘blank’ slate. It’s one of the few times I think that I’ve left a show thinking less about its ending and more about the reality that it will ‘begin again’, replay again—though not quite the same way as before. A distinctly more material-heavy return than the previous show’s thematic one.
I think I’m going to leave this as is for now, and close the post here. I’ve got some thoughts on my recent weekend trip to Sweden I’m in the process of organizing, but that deserves its own post more than being tacked on at the end of this one.
Until then, hopefully my funk abates soon. I need to get back to some intense writing (unless, of course, this thesis decides to magically pop out of my brain fully written on its own…not gonna lie, wouldn’t really complain if that happened…)
Going to start things off with some more (very quick, I promise) musings on dissertation-writing today before moving on to other theatre-related things. Don’t worry though. This time I’m going to actually be positive(ish) about things…for once.
I had a meeting with my thesis director about a week ago, the first since our last extensive one-on-one in early July before the summer holidays officially kicked off. Was I freaking out that there would be a lot of skeptical, questioning remarks about what I’d hacked out? Yes. Did I end up having to worry about that? No…as these things usually go, apparently (convenient how the mind tends to forget this when one is ‘in the thick of it’…).
Other than planning out my next steps (which I am kind of excited about because they involve diving back into theory), one thing that was brought up was all the things I had apparently ‘done’ or illuminated in my drafts, things that, in part challenged some other established critiques of audience/spectacle relationships (and I won’t get into it here because it is a bit complicated, and this is not the space for that sort of thing…also I’m on a time crunch). These comments both come as a rather pleasant little surprise, as well as inspire some fear. Because, of course, I had no conscious intention of challenging anything when I was writing my stuff, but as those who write (dissertations or not) probably know, sometimes you just get in the zone and things come out and you don’t really stop to think about the implications of it all.
What I’m saying is, I think I might have to get into some critical analysis of my own work after this is all done, so I don’t look like a fish with its mouth gaping open during my dissertation defense a year (holy shit) from now. Writing is a funny thing sometimes.
At the end of the session, she also threw out, on a whim, a suggestion that I think I’m going to officially adopt as my title :
Contemporary French Theatre: Spatial Effects
I’m not one who easily comes up with short, not terribly wordy titles (or titles in general) for my writing projects anyway, so having this now is definitely something I don’t mind adding to my little list of ‘dissertation wins’. Also, I like puns.
Anyway, moving on to what else I’ve been up to…
I tried an egg-centric (hehe) dish a week ago at brunch with a friend at Salatim, an Isreali restaurant in the 2nd arrondissement. The set brunch menu is priced at 21eur (though some add-ons, such as challah bread, will bump the price up a tiny bit…though…you kind of need bread for this meal so…yeah), and includes
a hot drink (coffee/tea)
juice (orange or house lemonade)
a generous serving of various salads and mezze topped with a portion of the dish of the day (that day the specials were something with salmon and confit lamb. We went with the lamb…because of course)
Shakshouka to share (yep)
A selection of desserts to share (including a very yummy chocolate babka)
When the waiter was explaining the brunch menu, the issue of me hating eggs came up, but I decided–because I guess I was feeling adventurous that day or something–to say to hell with it and said to put two eggs in the pan because hey, who knows?
In the end, I am glad we made that choice because the sauce the shakshouka was served in was really incredible (adding some harissa on it wasn’t such a bad choice either hehe). I did end up mixing in some of the egg white in with the sauce as I scooped it up with the (not included but really should be) challah bread, but I ended up leaving the yolk to the side. Mixing the egg whites in with the sauce was pretty alright. There was definitely a limit to how far I could tilt the egg/sauce ratio to the former but, at least I tried.
This does not, however, change my opinion on other egg-related breakfast dishes, so don’t even think of suggesting I try an omelette or poached egg or a breakfast burrito anytime soon.
Speaking of other food-related things, the day before said brunch I also met up with a friend to check out what I think is going to be one of my new favorite semi-annual events: the Salon des vins des vignerons indépendants (The Independent winemakers expo).
This event takes place two times a year, once in the fall (around November, I believe), and once in early spring. While the fall expo is held at the much larger venue at Porte de Versailles, in the southern edge of the city, this one took place at the slightly smaller–but no less lively, according to my friend who has attended several of these–Porte de Champerret. Basically, how it works is after you buy your entry ticket (normally 6eur, but I managed to snag a free pass), you check in, receive your complementary wine glass, and then proceed to roam up and down the aisles stopping at any tables that seem interesting. Rather than organize the wines by region–that is, one section for Bordeaux, one for the Loire Valley, one for Provence, etc–all the regions are kind of mixed together, allowing for, at least I think, some more spontaneous exploring or venturing out to try something new. Thankfully, for those on the hunt for a particular region, the signage above each table was color-coded, something I at least found rather helpful as the afternoon went on and I became increasingly determined to get my hands on some nice Rhône reds.
I ended up with four bottles in my ‘haul’ (honestly, my little wine cabinet thing could not fit any more than that), including an interesting white wine from the Jura region I would probably have never tried otherwise. I’ll be excited to break that one out eventually (another reason I didn’t get more wines, I don’t actually drink that much wine at home, living alone and whatnot).
And finally, before the ‘fun’ theatre commentary starts, I’m going to toot my own horn for a second and mention that about two weeks ago, I popped back over to Reid Hall to be part of a panel of former MA students, now PhDs, on how to carry out a research project, as well as speak about our own work to the current MA students. Having a rather untraditional–by comparison, at least, considering that the other two panelists were PhD candidates in history–project and trajectory did get my nerves going a bit at the beginning, but I think my choice to sort of dispense with the fact that, given the ephemerality of my corpus, I had no archives/powerpoint to show right away and move on to general advice ended up paying off. There was a nice little discussion afterwards as well, and I think that, having been in the position those students are in now six(!) years ago, hopefully we were all able to give them at least some helpful direction as they navigate the nonsense of a giant research project for the first time.
One thing that really irked me though, there was a gentleman in the audience who, the minute I went up to the podium, got up and started rifling through his bags rather loudly, as well as walking back and forth between the refreshments table and his seat. A side note: I was the second of the three presenters. He didn’t do this for any of the other two. I know it shouldn’t have, but it definitely took me aback for a minute, especially considering that I was doing this presentation after finishing a day of teaching. Honestly, if there is one thing I absolutely cannot stand, it’s when I have the floor and people are disruptive or chatty or in general, taking away my time. There was plenty of time between myself and the person who spoke before me to get up, stretch a bit, and then sit back down. Did it have something to do with the fact that I was the only woman speaking? Who knows. I’m leaning towards no, and just chalking this up to general rudeness, but holy hell my dude.
Common courtesy is a thing. Anyway…
Qui a tué mon père, written by Édouard Louis, dir. Stanislas Nordey, La Colline, March 24.
I’ll get this out of the way now: the answer to the question posed in the title (‘Who killed my father’, in English) is several people, or ‘the system’ in general. But this didn’t get fully addressed until towards the end of the production. The rest of the time was devoted to the solo actor–an avatar of sorts for Louis, considering the very autobiographical nature of this piece–detailing the history of his relationship with his father, a working-class man from the (formerly industrialized, recently deindustrialized) north of France, whose previous conservative and far-right leanings clashed with his son’s own politics as well as his person (Louis, like the solo character in the show, is openly gay). The end of the piece suggests that the father, in his older age, and now out of work due to a back injury, has started to come back around to the left, not only in terms of social issues, but also as a worker in the sense that, until recently, the left had been the side pictured as fighting for workers’ rights. (Xenophobia, homophobia, racism, discrimination, etc. are just some of the divisions the far-right has stoked in order to falsely paint itself as the party for the working man…unfortunately with some success).
As mentioned before, this show–which runs just shy of two hours–is performed by a solo actor, though he is not necessarily alone on stage. When the curtain rises, for instance, it sees him seated at a table facing what one assumes to be his father. The figure seated across from him, however, is not another actor, but a very realistic model (not gonna lie, it took me a while to realize that, partially because I was seated a bit further back in the room). This model has his downstage arm propped up on the table, the hand cradling his face so that it is hidden from view, and presumably, to suggest a lack of ‘connected gaze’. This image of visual disconnect (perhaps reflective of the metaphorical disconnect between father and son) carries on through the production as, during the blackouts that punctuate moments of the long monologue, other models of the same figure appear on stage, all of home facing either upstage, or purposefully away from where the actor is standing.
It’s only towards the end of the piece that the actor actually begins interacting with the models on the stage. At this point, there is a light snowfall bathing the space–or at least the square playing space on the middle of the stage–in white. One by one, the actor picks up the models–by this point, he has recounted the story behind his father’s work-related injury, as well as the bureaucratic difficulties involved with worker’s comp and getting back into/finding work at all–and gently placing them off the playing space. Once said center square is free of all objects, he begins his last, very pointed and very specific series of accusations.
Starting with the presidency of Jacques Chirac and concluding with Macron, the actor one by one names first, the sitting president, and then his Minister of Health and/or of Work. He doesn’t just recite the names either, but rather tilts his head up and cries the name into the sky, into the falling snow, slowly, deliberately, slightly pausing just before his declamation to make sure the focus shifts onto the names themselves before he continues on to recount the misdeeds of the persons behind said names. In general, the discours concerns the gradual eroding of the French social net, especially as far as the working class is concerned. The goal, as the text itself states, in presenting these grievances in such a way is to immortalize, via theatre, the names of the persons responsible for the increasingly-precarious living situations of the working class in the same way that theatre has–again, the comparison is given in the text–immortalized Richard III. The text closes by evoking the fact that the political means something very different for those in a position like the narrator’s (and by extension Louis’s) father, who are more quickly and more directly impacted by even five-euro budget increases or decreases than those of us (and this definitely includes most everyone sitting in the theatre that afternoon, including myself) for whom such fluctuations do not cause as much of a disruption.
And at the end, the son recounts a final conversation he had with his father, one in which the father concluded by saying it was about time for another revolution, for something to happen. Given the ongoing Gilets Jaunes demonstrations (a movement that still, in my opinion, needs to contend with the far-right presence, however small or not, in its ranks, despite the left’s attempts to retake control of the narrative), the timing of this was rather perfect.
Those who know me, though, will probably not be surprised at the fact that, while I agreed with much of what was being said during that final discours, I remained skeptical as to its efficacy in theatrical form (especially how very close to didactic it became, what with the reminder to audience members of France’s recent past). This is, however, based on an assumption that said discours would at least inspire reflection, if nothing else, on the part of the audience members, but how far can reflection go if it cannot then be translated into action?
I mean, in the end, the show is being performed in a venu located in a neighborhood that was historically very working-class but has recently undergone several years of change and the beginnings of a gentrification that is seeing the former working-class residents at risk of being priced out. It’s also a National Theatre. Normal ticket prices are around 30eur. For my American readers, this might not seem like a lot, given the average theatre ticket prices in many major cities, but here, that is up there. (Thankfully, I am still under 30, and even if I wasn’t, the membership card I have for this season greatly reduces the price per ticket).
Speaking of more political theatre…
Gymnase Platon: Lakhès, dir. Grégoire Ingold, MC93, March 28
So, here’s a question: if someone proposed to you to go attend a performance the first part of which consisted of a staging of one of Plato’s dialogues, would you go? A conversation on the themes addressed in the dialogue would of course follow, this evening in the presence of a professor of Classical Philosophy. As to the dialogue, other than being performed in French, as opposed to recited in Ancient Greek (thank god), there would be little done in terms of taking it from its historical moment to ours, trusting at least that the themes themselves would carry over just fine.
The idea of this production (or series of productions. There were actually three stagings of three different dialogues proposed, the first of which I missed, the second being this one, and the third being Plato’s dialogue on justice which I supposed to attend this past Saturday but didn’t because of…well…this piece) was to recreate the environment of the ancient Agora, a space of interaction, of sharing ideas, of thinking and speaking liberally. The problem with this idea, before we get into anything else, is that it is almost doomed to fall short from the start. For one thing, the fact that this production is staged–that is, that there is a text that is meant to be followed–means that the room for improvisation, for tangents, for interruption and other twists and turns of spontaneous discours is gone. There is, rather, a single group in this case–the actors–who retains vocal and ‘narrative’ dominance. Though at one point early on in the dialogue the audience is asked to vote on which of the two sides they agree with (and this is before Socrates comes in and complicates things), other than that, our participation, our presence was regulated to that of what is ‘expected’ of a contemporary theatre audience.
Quiet, attentive, responding but silently until the signal is given that we may applaud.
Interestingly, the night I went there was also a group of high school students in attendance, one of whom was dealing with a rather nasty cough (yay changing of the seasons). At one point, his teacher asked him to step out so that his coughing wouldn’t be so distracting, but I honestly almost wished he hadn’t done that because this was supposed to be an Agora after all, right.
Also, again, a reminder, in Ancient Greece there was no rule about not talking at the theatre. People only shut up if they thought what was being performed was worth listening and paying attention to. So…yeah.
Second problem: this was something the philosophy professor in attendance pointed out, but there is the question of why stage Plato now while at the same time not try and shift the context of the dialogue, in some way, from his historical moment to ours. The question at the center of this one was that of the nature of ‘virtue’, but one thing that was not addressed in the written program (nor in the staging prior to the professor’s commentary) was the fact that the metrics by which this is measured by are incredibly different now from what they were in Plato’s day. Plato, in other words, would very likely not recognize virtue as we see it, least of which because, unlike in his day, we don’t necessarily measure worth by military victories/prowess anymore.
And quite frankly, I would have been very happy to just have a conversation/seminar session with that professor. He was an older gentleman, but he had a very pleasant voice and a very engaging manner, and he tried his best to make sure we were following his train of thought. In fact, one of the young high schoolers was particularly engaged with what this man was saying, and was very eager to pose him questions (unfortunately, he only had time to ask one of his questions before we all had to clear the space, but I saw him walk over to the professor as everyone was beginning to file out, no doubt ready to ask him the second question he had in mind right when the announcement that we had to clear out was made).
But, yeah, I’m not sure how productive as a work of theatre this was. The tri-frontal seating arrangement (later turned quadri-frontal after the actors ceded the right to speak to the professor) could, I imagine, have given an air of an environment set for exchange of ideas but…the stage/spectator power structures of who can and cannot speak and when were still there. Anyway, in brief, I wasn’t really keen on seeing this happen again on Saturday, hence why I decided to skip out on the next performance.
Evel Knievel contre Macbeth, dir. Rodrigo Garcia, Nanterre, March 29
Yeah, I honestly have no idea how to even begin with this.
Actually, no, here’s how: in Swiss Army Man, before the screen cuts to black, a character, taking in the bizarre nonsense of everything that has just happened in front of her, takes a minute and then clearly lets forth the final line of the film
“What the fuck?”
Some key words for this piece
Yep. I’m going to just…let this one marinate somewhere else for right now.
I will say though that the sound design was cool
Dying Together, dir. Lotte Van Den Berg, Nanterre, March 31
Participatory theatre. Creating community around death.
The one thing I will say about this is that they asked for audience members’ consent each and every time a new scenario or a new person to represent was proposed to them. That’s excellent. More people should do that.
Moving on though, the idea with this piece was, in brief, to approach the notion of death as a communal, constellation-creating (yes, constellations, as in stars, as in things that are connected not physically but by our perception of links or patterns in the spaces between them) phenomena rather than a solo one. To do this, three scenarios were proposed (the 2015 Germanwings crash, the 2013 sinking of a migrant caravan boat near Lampedusa and the 2015 attacks in Paris, specifically at the Bataclan) during which members of the audience were asked to represent, via their physical, not vocal, presence, various persons connected with said events. Said persons could have been victims, perpetrators of the attacks, relatives of victims/attackers, or people who may have been peripherally if not directly involved in the event itself. If, during each scenario, we agreed to represent the person (note: none of these people were named; for those whose identities were more or less known, all we were given was very basic information including sex, age, and perhaps an occupation or a tidbit of info on the person’s background), we were led to a part of the space and told to stand in a certain way and look in a particular direction. This would be our starting position, and from there, when the constellation would start shifting, we could move around a bit to explore the space, our connection to it/the person we were representing, and our inter-personal connections to each other.
Movements stayed relatively slow and consisted mostly of walking or variations of sitting/laying down and standing up. This one is still a bit fresh in my mind since I just came from seeing it, but it did make me think of some general thoughts I have about this kind of improvisational (ish) experimental theatre, especially as it relates to the question of audience integration. It is no secret that I myself love physical theatre. Viewpoints (of which this experience definitely reminded me, especially as we all started moving about the space) changed my life and appreciation for theatre when I was in college, but one thing I’ve found is that, in terms of actually doing it, the best results are produced in intimate, more private spaces, amongst a small group of people who have spent several weeks (or better, months) working together in order to be fully comfortable with the level of physical vulnerability and liberty in experimentation that is often asked of performers in these situations. In short, in my experience, integrating an audience, or transposing these experiences into a much larger–and much more temporary group–is always a risk, and never quite seems to go anywhere. I personally did not feel any connection to any of the persons I was asked to represent. What I did do, however, was spend the majority of my time watching how other people navigated around each other. Dynamic spatial relationships, yo.
Also it should probably not come as a surprise to anyone but when it came time to ask for representatives for the attacks at the Bataclan, it took a couple tries before they found the first person who consented to represent one of the three shooters. This production was first staged in Rotterdam, I believe with the same three scenarios, but there is something about bringing that particular one back to Paris (and only 3.5 years after the attacks) that made the initial refusals or hesitations of participating not terribly surprising.
Anyway, my skepticism towards the efficacy of participation/’immersion’ theatre still holds for now.
And now, I am going to take a lozenge and head to sleep. Stupid seasonal (and time) changes throwing off my immune system…
I’ve been thinking a bit about biases recently, especially in regards to they can affect my own approaches to a critique of something I’ve seen. Those types of situations don’t come up terribly often, but when they do, they generally arise from stagings that tackle certain themes or discourses that, at least from my point of view as an American (and more specifically, as a very left-leaning, educated American) should have been covered already.
More often than not, what these pieces deal with–in one way or another–is the topic of race, and specifically the intersection between this and questions of national identity and the (completely nonsense) notion of colorblindness.
Unlike the United States–which, let’s be clear, still has a very long way to go on this regard–where discussions of race/racism/white privilege/structural inequalities/etc have been going on for several years now, and have solid footing outside academic circles, France has only started tackling these questions relatively recently, and to put it briefly, such discourse has had some difficulty sticking here. This isn’t because it is unfounded–it absolutely isn’t, and to those who think racial and ethnic bias doesn’t or cannot exist in this country, I invite you to take this little pin I’m going to hand you and burst the bubble you’re currently ensconced in. I don’t have time to get into this too much now, but in brief, I would argue it has more to do with the fundamental set of ‘universal’ values the country is founded on. Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, yes, but we should also add Laïcité in there, as that one in particular has led to the greatest amount of nonsense. You can see its effects in the 2004 law to ban the wearing of the hijab/veil in schools/government jobs, as well as in the backlash over the birkhini a few years ago. Those laws very clearly and disproportionately targeted Muslim women (hell, with the latter one, that point was made even more obvious when some people rightly started pointing out that nuns had been visiting the beach in their habits for years, and no one gave a damn then), yet of course that was repeatedly brushed under the rug in the favor of maintaining a certain image of ‘unity’ of ‘laicity’, of ‘we are all equal citizens even though daily occurrences prove almost embarrassingly that this isn’t even remotely true’.
All this is to say that the time is ripe for France to have a reckoning with itself.
Said reckoning was very much at the center of the first of the three plays (more precisely, two plays and one operetta) that I saw this weekend, Myriam Marzouki’s Que viennent les barbaresat the MC93 on Thursday evening. The title is in reference to the poem “Waiting for the barbarians” by Greek poet Constantin Cavafy, and, much like the poem, the piece tackles the question of an imagined ‘other’, and more specifically, the necessity of this ‘other’s’ existence in order for the dominant group to maintain its power. Interestingly, the piece also frames this question within the context of American discourses on race–and more specifically, discourses following the the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the end of the 1960s. This begins early on with a scene in which an actor playing James Baldwin speaks to a French reporter about his views on race relations in the United States, as well as addresses her (incredibly naive) line of questioning that stems from a thought of ‘but the movement’s over, what more could/do you want?’. He fires back a question at her about the situation in Algeria–and France’s treatment of Algerians pre- and post- Independence–and thus the discursive link between the United States and France is established. Contrary to popular imagination, the racism, othering, discrimination thought to only have occurred ‘over there’ (the United States) was also happening at home, that it wasn’t as ‘strange’ or ‘foreign’ a comportment as previously thought.
A similar link is made in a later scene featuring another actor in the role of Muhammed Ali giving his own interview to another French journalist–and to be quite frank, I’m not entirely sure if the repetitive nature of this scene really did much other than emphasize the didactic nature of the piece overall–, and it was at this moment I started to question my own biases as a spectator. Everything that was being said seemed obvious to me. Of course structural inequalities still existed. Of course black Americans had the right to create their own safe spaces away from white Americans, of course the parallels with France had been and still are there. But, I am not a French spectator; in other words, I am not who this piece was made for. What seemed didactic or expected to me may very well have been brand new information to any of the number of people in the room with me. I’m still wondering how to grapple with this. I’m still wondering if the didactic approach, of speaking and explaining the metaphors, the connections, the lessons relatively clearly rather than allowing more space for the spectator’s critical capacities to make those connections themselves was the best way to go, even for unfamiliar territory. At one point, during a scene in a sort of immigration processing office, a woman enters from upstage in a cloud of mist, the French flag draped over her in a way echoing that one Shepard Fairey poster featuring a Muslim woman in a hijab made of the American flag. She didn’t say anything. She appeared, came downstage, paused, then slowly exited.
Don’t get me wrong though; there absolutely needs to be more theatre, more art, more articles, more…everything written in France/accessible in French that allows for the inciting of a dialogue around these issues. I’m just starting to ask myself to what degree I should be writing about them at this particular stage in my own journey as an American-educated academic.
Anyway, onto the next thing.
Le Direktor(d’après le film de Lars von Trier) dir. Oscar Gómez Mata, Théâtre de la Bastille, March 15
Full disclosure: Lars von Trier isn’t really a director whose films I know particularly well (hell, I think I’ve only managed to watch Antichrist all the way through…tried with Melancholia, ended up falling asleep and not bothering afterwords…meh). But, the promo photos made this seem like a good time, and so I went into this hoping for some high energy to counteract the vast majority of things I’ve been seeing this year.
And oh man was I right.
This piece is silly. Very silly. Absurdly silly. And I like absurdly silly, especially when it involves poking fun at theatre, at the pretentiousness that the form gets sometimes, and at its conventions–especially the whole ‘suspension of disbelief/these actors are in their own little universe separate from the one we in the audience occupy’ thing.
The basic premise: a man (Ravn) is the head of an IT firm with a staff of 5 other employees who are nice but…incredibly naive and possibly incompetent. But they mean well. He, on the other hand, had gotten in the habit over the course of his ten years at the company of saying that all his unpopular decisions came from a hereto unseen ‘head director’, thus successfully managing to shift blame from himself and staying relatively popular. When the play opens, Ravn has the opportunity to sell the company for a very hefty sum, but to do so, the contract must be signed by the company Director, which, as far as literally everyone else knows, he is not. So, he hires an actor to play him, one who is very ‘into his craft’, so to speak (god the number of people I could recognize in that portrayal just made the whole thing soooo much better). Naturally, hijinks ensue, especially as the actor finds himself integrated even further into the company.
What I loved about this piece, however, were the amount of overt references to the ‘play’ part of acting that were integrated into the text. Often, Ravn and his hired actor would spring from the edge of the white flooring that indicated the limits of the office space to the edge of the stage, left bare and black, a kind of non-space, an in-between space, a space where they could also play with us sitting in front of them, with our knowledge of their fakery, of how they go about producing it. This kind of thing can get a bit kitsch at times, but the tongue-and-cheek of it all here–especially coupled with the very clipped rhythm the show moved in–kept things more or less fresh. Of course, all this was later related back to the whole business of management as well (there was a short interlude that discussed an actor’s capacity to elicit certain emotions/emotional responses from spectators through acts of manipulation that seemed to contain easy to spot links to the whole notion of running a business), but honestly, I was just too busy letting loose and laughing a bit (dear god comedy is such a hard thing to get right, especially absurdist/satirical comedy) to really care about the greater thematics that evening.
The last piece I saw this weekend, however, was decidedly less ludic, but this had more to do with certain imageries and juxtapositions in the staging than the piece itself.
La Chauve-Souris(Die Fledermaus) de Johann Strauss, dir. Célie Pauthe, MC93, March 16, 2019
I know what you all may be thinking: ‘Opera? Really?’. Yes, really.
This show is actually being put on in partnership with the Academie de l’Opéra de Paris, and simply put, I quite like the idea of taking opera and moving it out of the city and into the suburbs for a bit (and for much lower prices too!). Makes it more accessible, if nothing else.
Anyway, the operetta. The piece itself can be summed up as a farce involving a man who is meant to turn himself into prison where has been sentenced to an 8-day stint, deciding to skip out on that to go to a party with his friend, his wife (in disguise) and the chambermaid showing up to the party as well, and everything just being silly. Act II closes with an ode to champagne. Silly.
No, what’s more interesting about this piece is that during her research, the director discovered that it was performed by prisoners at a concentration camp not far from Auschwitz. This camp was known for housing artists and creative types–basically anyone whose absence would have potentially caused a slight media stir–, and as such, often the prisoners were forced to perform for the guards. I don’t know what or how much can be said about the particular kind of torture that this represents that isn’t stinking of a cliché, but what cannot be denied is the fact that at times, performance became both an act of survival as well as a sort of act of resistance.
This connection was reflected very openly in the stage design, which consisted of a set of walls, bare except for the lower stage left corner on which was printed an image of one of the interior corridors of the camp (I was a bit too far away to confirm, but there is a chance that the photo itself may have been taken following liberation in 1945). Periodically, video footage of the director’s 2018 visit to the camp would be projected on the walls as one of the characters performed a solo, the lights dimming down from their usual warm glow to signal the presence of this ‘memory’ in the show’s history. Costume and prop design also nodded to the late 1930s/early 1940s, the lack of overt ‘opulence’ in the décor and objects further harkening back to the tragedy the piece is intertwined with.
This production also contained a sort of aside that broke the fourth wall, so to speak, with this one further functioning as a means through which the connection between the play and the Holocaust would be more pointedly thrust forward. At the start of Act III, just as everyone had settled back into their seats following intermission and the house lights turned off, the stage lit to focus on a man sitting on a table center stage, with a small screen behind him. What ended up getting projected on this screen was a propaganda video made by the Nazis of prisoners in the camp living what appeared to be a blissful life in nature, with leisure activities, excellent medical care, food, cultural programs, etc. Of course, this was all completely fabricated, and the actor on the stage made that point very clear several times. What is striking, of course, about this footage is the knowledge of the horrific tragedy and torture looming over it. There is a sort of weighted, heavy presence hanging over the–to us, who know what really happened in those camps–supposed bliss and joy on people’s faces.
It is easy to see the connection between this and a piece whose main plot centers around a party, around good fun, silliness, but which was performed under circumstances of incredible duress.
I’m not sure if I’m going to end up writing about any of these pieces in further detail for my dissertation, at this point, I have a meeting on Friday with my advisor (finally!) to talk about things and maybe even lay out a game plan for where I go from…wherever I am right now. But where February was relatively quiet theatre-wise, March is going to be absolutely packed. Let’s hope my fingers (and my brain) will be able to withstand all the typing.
I’m sort of starting to come to the realization that, as I get closer to hacking out this thing that will eventually become my dissertation (or a mess that slightly resembles one), I’m not entirely sure how realistic it’s going to be to write up detailed descriptions of every single show I see on this blog. This isn’t really so much to do with a general feeling of laziness–even though I should admit I’ve taken a slight writing break again to focus on some grading I absolutely needed to get done these past few days–, but rather more to what I’ve started to use this blog for on a personal level.
If my Instagram, where I post a program photo every night I see a play, serves as a sort of personal show archive, this thing has become something of a place where my first drafts start to take shape. I honestly almost find it hilarious that, as I was writing up some show critiques that would eventually be integrated into the larger work, I was referencing back to here more often than to any of my (many…oh god so many) notebooks. So with that in mind, I think from here on out I’m probably only going to do more detailed posts on shows that stuck with me, shows that I want to go back to, that I have thoughts on.
But before getting into that, a small update on my current state of being: I’ve been feeling slightly guilty about my present ‘lazy’ streak. I think one trap that I (and I’m guessing a lot of other PhDs) fell into was looking up how often I should be working on this thing, or whether my productivity/rest periods were ‘normal’. In short, whether I was doing enough. It is incredibly disheartening sometimes at 1am, right before bed, to stumble upon articles or blog posts that say that if you’re not working on your thesis at least 15 hours a week then you’re doing it wrong. But then I just have to remind myself that, at least for me, sometimes taking my time is how I am the most effective (although, yeah I fall into patterns of procrastination that sort of start a cycle of feeling as if I’m just cutting corners, cheating my way through this, and thus have no idea what I’m talking about). I absolutely hate the whole ‘productivity’/’work output’ narrative, and I don’t think it really does anyone any favors, especially when it comes to a kind of work where you’re stuck in your own head for the most part.
I mean, hell, I managed to write around 70 pages in about 2.5 months, and this is with working about 15hrs/week on top of that (not including lesson planning and grading).
And I know that, logically, there is no magic or “right” way to be doing this. It’s just hard not to fall into that trap when Google is right at your fingertips.
Anyway, enough with that. On to today’s two write-ups, the second of which is…well…let’s just say I have some THOUGHTS on it.
Doreen (d’après Lettre à D. d’André Gorz), directed by David Geselson, Théâtre de la Bastille, January 21
I’m not usually the biggest fan of hyper-realistic theatre, mostly because I’ve found that the closer a design attempts to approach the ‘real’, the easier it becomes to spot the artifice. The exceptions to this are usually productions that sort of use that knowledge to their advantage, or at least try and interrogate it somehow. This, I would say, is one of those exceptions.
A bit of background first: the piece itself is liberally inspired by–and at times quotes directly from–André Gorz’s Lettre à D, an ode he wrote to his wife, Dorine, who at the time of writing (2006) was dying from an unspecified illness likely caused by some injections she had received decades earlier on a routine visit to have some x-rays done. The two had been married for close to sixty years at that point, and the text itself reflects that, particularly in the pang of realization of the possibility that soon one of them may have to try and live without the other.
In real life, Gorz and his wife both committed suicide in 2007, preferring to die together on their terms than risking being separated. As for Doreen, the show program makes no secret of the final endgame–and indeed, those familiar with the real story have already been ‘spoiled’ on that account–, but at the same time, it, and the production, prefer not to linger on that and focus instead on the long ‘moment before’. How do you sum up or capture a life of nearly sixty years together in close to an hour and a half?
The answer, it seems, is to host a dinner party.
As far as gestures of hospitality are concerned, eating together, sharing or offering food to others is perhaps one of the most intimate. There is an act of camaraderie in the passing around of dishes, in pouring out glasses of wine from the same bottle, in dipping hands together into one bowl of chips to grab some to nibble on (all while making sure to leave some for the next person). When the doors to the Bastille’s black box/little theatre opened, what we were greeted with when we walked in was a sort of living room set decorated in a distinctly mid-century modern style (carpeted, and lots of beige/browns…you know that almost comforting yet also somewhat overwhelming scent of old dusty books? It looked like that, if that makes sense). Chairs were set up around 3 sides of the rectangular perimeter, with the back wall being taken up by a set of his/hers desks. Patrons could thus choose to sit either incredibly close to, or even somewhat on the set (as I did), or a few rows back on slightly more traditional raked seating.
The most prominent thing in the room, however, was the dining table set (assuming we are looking at the stage front-on) at a diagonal on the upper stage right quadrant. On this table were several serving platters with cheeses, charcuterie, cherry tomatoes (because this is Paris, and there are some stereotypes that will never cease to be so hilariously true), nuts and dried fruits, and crackers, as well as several bottles of wine, some carafes of water and juice, napkins, toothpicks, and drinking glasses.
The two actors, our André and Doreen, were pretty much in host-mode right from the start, inviting us to help ourselves to what was on offer (it took a minute for someone to get up the courage to be the first at the table, but not as long as I would have predicted). The minute someone approached the table to not just look at but actually serve themselves, the energy of the room just shifted to move over there. People claimed seats first, of course, and what I found particularly endearing here was the fact that several times “André” and “Doreen” actually helped some older patrons to find more comfortable seats, engaging directly with these individuals. It’s a small but not insignificant thing. Showing direct concern for another’s needs or well-being is a step towards fostering a connection of trust, of a friendly intimacy.
There was no real announcement that the show was about to “officially” begin–though, let’s be honest, it started from the moment the doors opened–, but naturally after the house doors had been closed, everyone made their way back to their seats. The house lights remained on, keeping us ensconced (for the moment) within the world on the stage, and with this André and Doreen launched into an initial summary of their story together.
Now the expected thing in a situation like this would be to have either one of the two take the lead in the storytelling–thus establishing themselves as a sort of ‘primary narrator’–, or if not to have the two play off of one another in a sort of storytelling volley. In other words, the staging would be such that one voice takes precedence over the other, in order for the audience to be able to clearly follow what was being said.
Instead, what happened here was that both “André” and “Doreen” began to speak at the exact same time. Furthermore, rather than being identical, their speeches had almost nothing to do with one another, other than the fact that they centered on some aspect of the couple’s relationship. While “Doreen” centered her speech more on the couple’s personal history–how they met, and so forth–, “André” focused more on the relationship in conjunction to his writing career, and more specifically on the final book he had just finished writing. As the two actors were seated either upstage right (“Doreen”) or down center stage, literally in the front row of seats (“André”), it was not entirely impossible, from an audience perspective, to drown out one voice for the sake of concentrating on the other, provided, of course, that one was seated relatively closer to one of the actors than the other. For those situated in between them–as I was–the choice or act of listening was a bit trickier. I ended up listening in more on “Doreen”, as the higher pitch in her voice carried more clearly, but there were also moments where I attempted to ignore her in an attempt to “eavesdrop”, as it were, on “André’s” conversation. The problem with doing that–as well as the general conundrum of being stuck in the middle–, however, was that it required playing catch-up to try and pick up the thread of conversation, while at the same time acknowledging that one could be missing something being said by the other partner. This idea of remaining in a certain state of ignorance, of not being given full access to every single bit of information, happens anyway for those who happened to be sitting considerably closer to one actor than the other. But the question of having a choice, of actively choosing to not listen or at the very least choosing which voice to give preference to is one that really only becomes apparent for those who just so happened to choose a seat that just so happened to not be near enough to either of the actors to make the decision-making process easier for them.
At the same time, these initial simultaneous speeches are also the first indication that, though the living room set, the invitations to partake and share in the food and drink, and the initial chitchat between the actors and some audience members suggested that the latter were being fully invited “in” to the world on the stage, a full immersion or ‘world-sharing’ was only illusory. In other words, there were going to be gaps, parts we could not see, parts of the story we, the observers, were perhaps never meant to be privy to. Some of the instances where this became evident were relatively innocuous–as the duo reflected back on their lives, memories came up not in any chronological order, but were rather triggered by something one member of the duo said/did, transitions following a pattern or code unknown to those ‘outside’ the couple–, but there was one moment where the cutting off of avenues to understanding became rather explicit. Towards the final tail of the piece, the duo gets into an argument, triggered in part by how to tackle the question of “Doreen’s” illness, as well as “André’s” work schedule. At this moment, the house lights are more or less off, with the living room lighting dimmed to suggest an evening glow. There is a sound of rain, light at first–so light, in fact, that I at least almost thought it wasn’t part of the sound design, but was rather the actual rain that was scheduled to fall that night–but then progressively escalating to a full-blown storm (complete with thunder and lighting sounds). As the sound increases, so does the intensity of the argument between the two characters. Eventually, the duo finds themselves at the center of the stage, still yelling at one another, but at that point the sound of the rain had grown so loud that it all but completely drowned out everything else. At times, one of the voices would cut through the rain–proof that the actors were still actually speaking rather than miming an argument–, but it was not enough to make out distinct words or phrases. By the time the storm died, the argument was over. No resolution to that moment was given, at least it was not given to the members of the audience.
It’s enough to make one wonder whether or not we were “owed” one, and if so, why? On what grounds? Were we even supposed to be there, watching this, anyway? The intimacy of the situation is almost suffocating here not just because of how limited it is, but of the shift from welcome guest to voyeur that this moment in particular results in. It’s funny, I think, whenever a production unexpectedly makes you question your act of “watching” like that.
Ils n’avaient pas prévu qu’on allait gagner, written by Christine Citti, directed by Jean-Louis Martinelli, MC93, January 24
Ok buckle in kids because I have some THOUGHTS on this one.
Before I get to them though, a little preface: for those who are familiar with the show Orange is the New Black, remember how the show creators/writers characterized Piper early on as being kind of a “Trojan horse” that would bring viewers–and let’s be honest, when they say viewers, they mean white viewers–into the world of the mostly WOC-populated prison? Yeah, let’s keep that in mind for a minute.
This play doesn’t take place in a prison but rather in a group home for kids who, for one reason or another, are part of the French foster care system. The piece itself was inspired by time that both writer Citti (who appears in the piece as a fictionalized version of not necessarily herself, but of the role/position she had) and director Martinelli spent visiting and working with the kids and staff in one such home. The latter had originally gone to try and see if it would be possible to organize some theatre classes, but when that didn’t pan out (logistics and whatnot), he and Citti entered into a sort of loose collaboration to see if they could create something. The result is a piece that largely centers on a group of teenagers in a home in Saint-Denis (a suburb just outside Paris), but contrary to what one might think, this is not a piece of documentary theatre. Rather than taking direct stories or testimony from the kids they met/worked with and creating something out of that, the resulting script was written using those stories and experiences as inspiration. The production team is very open about this, insisting to not take the focus off the fact that this is a constructed piece of theatre. Further drawing attention to the theatrical construction of this whole piece is the fact that all of the kids are played by actors who are very obviously in their mid to late-twenties (“Hollywood” teens, in other words). What does not get touched on is the fact that, once again, here we have a piece of theatre that focuses primarily on the experiences of disenfranchised minority groups written by a white author.
Yes, pretty much all of the kids in the piece are POC, though there are a couple of white kids from low-income families in the mix as well. Thankfully, despite the piece starting with Citti’s character coming in for her first afternoon volunteering at the home and the resulting back-and-forth that pairs her earnestness (but not naiveté, thank goodness) with the kids’ suspicion, this is not a “white person comes in and saves the poor POC kids from themselves by teaching them to believe in their dreams and blah blah blah”. Rather, Citti remains more or less silent, with the majority of the piece reserved for the kids (their interactions with one another and the staff, moments where they tell their stories or reveal a bit more about their home lives, etc). Citti does have a couple of scenes in which she has a short dialogue with one or more of them, as well as some instances in which she directly addresses the audience, summarizing events to signal the passage of time. Most of the time, however, she is seated–usually far stage right–with a notebook in front of her (even if she’s not writing in it, it’s there). She, then, is “our” — and by “our” I mean the mostly white audience, including myself, and especially those of us who have been privileged enough to not know what it is like to live in group home — in, our Trojan horse into the world.
Of course, the fact that she remains on stage as an observer, as a sometimes notetaker, gives her something of an air of an ethnographer, though I have a slight suspicion this may not have been intentional. Regardless, I couldn’t help but dwell on the fact that though this piece is primarily dominated by the voices of performers of color, that the words they speak and the narrative being played out is inspired by the experiences of POC, the words themselves are filtered through a white lens by virtue of Citti’s act of writing.
I also kind of sometimes wonder whether my American-ness is having too much of an effect on my perception of this, considering that these sorts of conversations very rarely happen in France (outside of some anti-racist circles). Then again, North America is still very far from perfect in how it addresses these same questions so…there you go.
In any case, the staging of Citti as an observer did also end up tying her closer to those of us in the audience by virtue of her act of watching. She essentially does the same things we do. She sits, mostly quiet, watches, reflects, but in the end, her presence there doesn’t result in a life changing moment or a revolution for the kids she has put herself in close proximity with. Granted, to think that theatre itself (especially theatre about explicitly politically and emotionally charged topics such as this one) can directly lead to large-scale structural change is a bit foolhardy. A play can make someone think, but it’s not going to change the world on its own. But for a situation like this, why is it, exactly that an audience needs to be here? Is it for the exposure of these stories, so that they can reach a space outside the walls of the group home? If so, why did it need to happen in this medium, with this writer and director?
At a certain point in the production, all the kids gather in a plexiglass “box” in the center of the stage, earlier established to be the program director’s office. Earlier, one of the home’s residents–a Vietnamese kid who doesn’t speak, as he does not speak French, but rather moves slowly about the space, silently interacting with his fellow residents–had taken a white marker and written the names of all the kids, as well as those of the staff and of the character Citti plays, on the front of the box. When the kids gather inside, they stand facing outward, directly towards those observing them, and it is almost impossible to not conjure up images of a zoo, of animals on display, their names letting visitors know who (or what) they are. It is a powerful image, directly playing to the implications of the gazes of those in the audience.
It is also irresponsible, I think, to stage an image like that without taking the time to interrogate the origins of the play of which it is part.
So there you have it. My thoughts on this last one are perhaps somewhat incoherent, but its a piece that, either intentionally or not, unearths quite a lot of complexities.
In other news, this weekend I am headed to this new immersive experience called DAU that, in brief, is inspired by living conditions in the Soviet Union (think ultra-high surveillance and whatnot). My expectations are…low-ish…but mostly because so many people were trying to characterize it as this new life-changing/art-changing thing, and that kind of talk makes me both curious and suspicious. In any case, I am prepared for anything with this, including hilarity and nonsense, and I have a feeling that, no matter what ends up happening, I am very much going to enjoy writing about it.
I think one of the things I still struggle a bit with sometimes is the whole idea that no one (or, well, very few people) is every going to really read my dissertation…probably.
Because on the one hand, almost no one is going to read it (so that takes some of the pressure away…but only a fraction of it)…
…but on the other hand, if this thing is just going to collect dust somewhere, what am I doing it for?
I do wonder sometimes if the work I’m doing is “necessary”, if it can maybe help people in some way. Sometimes I find myself thinking that I’m not sure the world really needs another person yapping about theatre for 200+ pages right now, and other times I think that my loving the theatre so much to want to devote my time writing about it (all while still wondering if I am even contributing anything new to the conversation…but what arts/humanities PhD doesn’t constantly ask themselves this?) is enough. Who knows? I would like something else to come out of all this though…something beyond the final dissertation. I’m just not sure what that is yet.
Teaching high school has, I think, had a larger effect on the development of my state of mind and my relationship with my project than I had originally anticipated, I think. Maybe it’s because every time I leave the school for the day, I always ask myself if I have really given anything to my students, if I’ve managed to get them to think outside the confines of their own bubble at all. I have some doubts about this. But then again, I’m always thinking I should be giving more, that I can give more. I just want to be useful somehow, like I’m contributing something other than noise (or worse) a repetition of something someone else has already said.
For now, though, I’ll limit my usefulness to providing you lovely reader(s) with some comments on Angélica Liddell’s The Scarlet Letter at La Colline, a show that brought me back to some very familiar aesthetic territory, but also made me a bit angry.
To preface, despite the title, this play is not a direct adaptation of Hawthorne’s novel, but rather only inspired by it. Yes, Hester Prynn (played by Liddell) and Arthur Dimsdale are present as figures in the production. Yes, there is a scarlet letter A sewn onto Hester’s dress, and yes, female sexuality is thematically thrust front and center. Overall, however, the production was concerned more with sexuality, morality/moral hypocrisy and the act of transgression than it was with linear narrative.
It was the morality thing, above all else, that eventually irked me.
In her director’s note, Liddell begins by quoting the following from the opening of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter:
“The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.”
From here, she, I would say correctly, highlights a link between the sacred or the hallowed–can’t forget that even for the Puritans, cemeteries and proper burials were reserved for only certain members of the population–and the abject, or the rejected (that which has been deemed as going against the established order and must consequently be excluded). She links this back to art by proposing the hypothesis that art cannot exist without the act of moralizing, that, indeed, art is born from the disdain and rejection poured out by audiences/consumers toward the work in question for either its refusal to adhere to a certain moral code, or the lengths to which it pushes it. She continues by likening the process of art-making to taking a scalpel and draining a pus-filled plague sore, not necessarily to cleanse her body, but to drain and expose the toxicity of the bodies of her audience. It is, then, an exposure of that which many may well wish to keep hidden away. In order for this ‘drainage’ to work, however, she needs us–the audience–to be there, us with our potential for scorn and ridicule and disgust. I’ve copied the relevant excerpts from the text below for reference (and for anyone who can read French and is curious):
“En exposant sa propre pourriture, l’artiste, le fou, l’immoral agit tel un scalpel sur les bubons pestilentiels de ses maîtres : il les draine. Sans juges, la punition n’existerait pas. Et sans lettre écarlate, l’art n’existerait pas. Sans moralisme, l’art n’existerait pas. Sans hypocrisie, l’art n’existerait pas.”
As she says later…there could not have been a Mary without an Eve.
Honestly, if this show was in production back when I was writing my first Master’s thesis on masochistic theatricality in Genet, I would have been alllll over it because even this short excerpt by itself is so incredibly aligned with what I was writing on back then. Hell, the Genet parallels are even stronger earlier in the text when Liddell makes an open ‘confession’ to her criminality–something she later vocally repeats on the stage:
“Alors laissez-moi être une criminelle. Celle qui vous parle tue, vole, pervertit.” [“So let me be a criminal. She who now speaks to you kills, rapes, perverts.”]
This isn’t the only Genet parallel to be found here–a later bit sees the troupe of eight nude men clasping bouquet’s of flowers between their legs so that they seem to burst out of their behinds in an image recalling not just Genet’s Un Chant d’amour, but also one Pier Paolo Passolini–, but the criminal element did stick out to me precisely because of the allusion to a personal past. See, when Genet called himself a criminal in his works, there was a ring of truth to it precisely because before he became known as a writer he was a thief and a prostitute, two occupations that go against what may be described as ‘orderly’ or ‘moral’ behavior by the dominant ‘powers that be’. Liddell, from what I can gather, is neither a murderer nor a rapist, but she does have quite the penchant for perversion, so I will give her that.
The majority of the close to two-hour performance is a mix of theatre, dance and performance art that sees Liddell–wearing a black silk dress and hoop skirt, with, as it is revealed later, nothing underneath–sharing the stage with the aforementioned troupe of eight nude men, as well as one figure in red cloak and matching face veil (Arthur Dimsdale), and a black dancer, dressed at first in a light blue tunic. In one of her first monologues (there are three), Liddell loudly proclaims that she hates living in a world where women hate men.
Yeah, that’s right…there is some anti #metoo stuff here, all in the name of speaking against what Liddell identifies as new forms of puritanism. Is it provocative? Yeah, I guess you could say it is, in a way, since it definitely provoked a somewhat visceral reaction in me. But, I would also argue that it comes from a misreading of the entire point of the #metoo movement, instead drawing on the hysteric comments from its detractors.
To illustrate my point, let me jump ahead a bit to the middle of the production, during which Liddell addresses her sexuality explicitly, not just as a woman, but as a woman over 50 (conveniently, this comes shortly after author Yann Moix offered his…opinions…on the sexual desirability of women over a certain age). She begins by commenting on the relationship between the attractiveness and ‘beauty’/ ‘purity’ of younger women and the male gaze/male consumption. Men desire this youth, this nubility, the unmarked skin that can be sullied when they touch it (or penetrate it…again and again). What remains hidden–the lines, wrinkles, sweat, cellulite, mucus, piss, etc–begins to appear as age takes hold, and now the woman, no longer conforming exactly to the desires of men becomes ‘ugly’. But she craves, she wants, this ‘ugliness’ that is projected out of her is a result of years of being gazed upon as a desired object, and now that that ‘status’ is forbidden, essentially, to her, she can free her lechery. Liddell, who is 52 herself, uses the stage to perform out her desire for men, for their bodies. At one point, the men of her entourage form two lines, facing inward. As she walks down the center of these two lines, she stops between each pair, briefly taking one penis in each hand before continuing down. At the final pair, she kneels down and very briefly takes one of them into her mouth.
Here’s the thing about that: on the whole, desiring somebody is normal. Women’s desire and sexuality has been repressed continuously in all manner of societies–this is true. At least as far as I am concerned, there is nothing wrong with fantasizing, and indeed, #metoo does not call for a blind stamping out of “impure thoughts” or desire in general–at least that’s not how I see it. I mean, really, anyone is pretty much free to have whatever dirty fantasies they like. The problem, however, is not just when that fantasy transcends into reality, but when that act of doing so involves the nonconsensual negation of another person’s (usually a woman’s) autonomy.
Really, though, it isn’t too much to ask to not be groped at work, or have a boss or coworker make suggestive comments (or worse bribe you into performing sexual favors for the sake of maintaining/advancing your career). The reason it probably feels to some people as though it is a ‘witch hunt’ is not because everyone is making all this up out of thin air–to do so would be a disservice for victims anyway–it’s because now we have the platforms to, loudly, say what maaaaaaany people have been saying for generations. Hell, #metoo was started by a woman of color in the 1990s. The internet just makes it easier to be more open about it now.
Anyway, all this is to say that I think Liddell may have contradicted herself in her own speech (though who knows, maybe I am entirely off base).
I was going to try and jot down some other reflections on the design of the show (so much red), but I’m feeling myself get a bit worked up, and I have to rush back to teach my final class of the day.
We’re reading Into the Wild in my 11th grade class. I never thought I’d be encountering that book in a classroom again after a writing class freshman year of college. At least this time it was my choice to include it in my curriculum.
Hello from the official start of my two weeks of vacation from teaching but not working! Not gonna lie, it’s pretty fantastic to be here.
First things first, I am in a much better place than I was when I last posted. I think all the stress was starting to get to me a lot more than I wanted to admit to myself, but writing it all out felt very cathartic.
And then, following my post, I ended up having a string of back-to-back hangout commitments, pushing me to get out of the house to do something other than go to the theatre on my own.
There was a raclette night (including an attempt to grill some sausages on the top of the raclette machine which…was not the greatest idea), which, since it fell just after the last day of Hanukkah, also included latkes and applesauce, and an absolutely decadent chocolate-caramel bûche de Noël from BléSucré. And then came the 100th edition of Saturday afternoon jazz at LaFontainedeBelleville, where I met up with an old friend and their parents (their mom even made friends with the gentleman at the table next to us, leading to said gentleman buying a bottle of wine and some charcuterie for the table…because why not).
I saw a friend perform in a short play festival at Cité U, grabbed drinks (and stayed out far later than expected) with another, and had a very copious brunch at LaFontaine the next day with a third. And through all of this, I’ve been frantically trying to rid myself of my remaining tickets resto for the year (which, to be honest, I’m debating applying for next year, since I barely go out for lunch, and it’s never certain that an establishment will ‘bend the rules’ and accept these vouchers during dinner service), trying out different places, most of them old stand-bys, but I did get a couple of new ones in as well (the photo below is from my lunch at Bol Porridge Bar):
FYI: I managed to get rid of all of them, save one. So close…
Anyway, I’ve got an episode of my new obsession, 90 Day Fiancé (or actually, Before the 90 Days, season 2, episode 6) on in the corner of my screen and a list of show notes to get to so…let’s get right to it.
Show1: RêveetFolie, directed by Claude Régy, based on a poem by Georg Trakl, Nanterre-Amandiers
Before I get into this one, one thing I’ve started to realize is that I’m subconsciously making decisions about which shows I’m pretty sure I’m going to end up writing on, and which ones will be blips.
This one, I have a feeling, will be one of the latter.
It’s not due to anything personal; I’ve just come to the point where I know I’ll need to be more discerning about which pieces to devote my energy to. If I’m not still thinking on it the day after—and especially if my notes don’t really jog my memory—I’m probably just going to end up filing that particular show away into my memories. At least I’ll still have the program and my notes to look at, should I ever want to (attempt to) revisit the thing.
Also, not gonna lie, I was not in the most energetic mood when I saw this one, and, seeing as it was a deliberately quiet, very dark (think just enough light where it is almost dreamlike, where when the actor finally appears you’ve got to take a minute to assure yourself that he’s actually there), solo show, it took a bit of energy for me to keep my eyes open.
The set design, however, was pretty cool in its minimalism. Think a large conical structure, where the tip of the cone narrows upstage to a degree that it looks almost as though it could go on forever, into infinity. This is where the actor emerges from, eventually, moving and gesticulating about the space slowly, striking a certain set of poses, eyes shut the entire time. Yeah, that’s right. His eyes were shut right up until he came out for his bow.
If you want disconnect, you pretty much have it right here.
Show2: MacadamAnimal, created by Eryck Abecassis and Olivia Rosenthal, MC93
Here’s a question for you all: at what point do animals become pests? And to whom? And if/when they do become pests, what do we do with them? Do we leave them be? If so, there is a very high likelihood that some populations will be affected more than others.
This was a performance of sound and image/projection more than anything, with the artists in question taking, as their subjects, the animals that inhabit the city with us, yet who we’d prefer to ignore: pigeons, crows, rats, termites, bees, stray dogs…Each one had its own segment, complete with a little foley set-up that complemented the images projected onto the screen behind the two performers.
A couple segments stood out more than the others, the first of which I will mention is the one on stray dogs (which also flowed into a segment on bees). During this segment, a video was projected on the screen showing footage of residents of Bobigny first walking towards the MC93, and then filming an interview inside in which they discussed any encounters they had with the animal in question. Of course, when a group of kids came on the screen—local kids, made obvious by the fact that they at times referenced very specific areas of the neighborhood with a certain level of ease that comes with not having to think too much about pinpointing and claiming your surroundings—the audience visibly perked up a little. I mean, it’s almost a universal maxim: tiny children talking over each other because each one insists that they have the most important thing to say is pretty adorable.
But the localizing, the precise localizing of this production within the environs of the theatre (building) itself was pretty unique in its execution. And, given how the rest of the piece plays out following this moment, establishing a network of inter-connectivity that was easily comprehensible on a human scale (if that makes sense) acted as a rather effective gateway into understanding the thematics of urban networks (visible and invisible) that would be continued to be explored later.
This…very peripherally…brings me to a second segment: the one on the soft-shell crabs that, through no deliberate intention of their own, ended up making a transatlantic crossing into France. These are non-native crabs. They do not belong here, lest they disturb the local ecosystems.
Interesting, the show posits, that we think of this now when, during the period of colonization of North and South America (and let’s be honest, even beyond that), ships from the Atlantic were bringing incredibly invasive species into the ‘New World’ that all but destroyed several established ecosystems.
So, again, at what point, and for whom, does an animal become a pest?
Show3: Saison1, Florence Minder, Théâtre de la Bastille
Another show at the Théâtre de la Bastille that is about the theatricality of theatre.
I love this place so much.
And this one was not just a show—or rather, a storytelling session—on theatricality, but theatricality using the codes of television series. Hence the title.
There were three “episodes”. I think for the sake of clarity, I’m just going to give a detailed summary of what happened in this one because it was…something. In the best of ways.
Here we go…
When we enter the space, we see a woman (Florence Minder) sitting at a table, a laptop and a microphone in front of her. She bids us good evening. It’s as though we are here for a conference or a pitch meeting.
When everyone is sitting, she begins by welcoming us all to this reading of this ‘serialized’ play commissioned especially for the Avignon Theatre Festival, 2034 edition, through a generous donation by the theatre arts commission (this comment elicited quite a bit of giggles…because no such thing exists, and how silly to think that people would care enough to bring such an association into existence). She then explains that she will be presenting (reading) for us episode 1. The episode would end when she closed the laptop and stepped out from behind the table.
And of course, like in situations where you start watching an episode of a thing on Netflix and say to yourself you will just stick to one when you know perfectly well you will not, I did not want the ‘episodes’ to end (especially the last one because how it ended was both rude but also absolutely perfect).
Onto the episodes…(fyi it does get a bit graphic at parts). Also full disclosure, for the sake of time, I just copy/pasted everything below from a text conversation I had while I was walking home from the theatre (when everything was still very fresh in my mind).
Just her at a table, with a laptop and a mic reading the script (as a sort of omniscient narrator). The episode opens on a hostage situation. Our lead character, Irene (a dental hygienist) is on a trip in South America, but her tour bus got hijacked in the Amazon by a group of rebels
Irene gets taken into the back room by one of them and while the dude is raping her (in the ass…this bit was specific), she tricks him, grabs a bit of mirror, plunges it into his neck, grabs his ak-47 and goes on a shooting spree killing everyone (including the other hostages…oops)
The episode closes with her in the jungle, some bullet shells in her ass and a bad yeast infection
Then episode 2 starts
The table is moved offstage, she keeps the mic. Starts again as the narrator and gives us a quick recap (which also turns into a little flashback about Irene’s life). Then the actress ducks under a sheet, then uncovers it to reveal another table with a mic, and also the fact that she has changed costumes
She is now Irene in a bloody shirt and camo pants
Another actress enters…she is the wife of the homme de ménage at the hotel. She serves coffee and talks incredibly quickly
She is also a hallucination
Now we have Irene and her subconscious interacting with one another mostly about how Irene could survive in the jungle with bullets in her ass and a yeast infection and no survival skills (it’s graphic but also hilarious)
The question of survival comes down to how much calorie reserves she has stored in her which are later divided into how many more lines the two have left to speak before they ‘die’ (in the theatrical sense, as in, the character ceases to exist)
Irene ends up besting her hallucination, and the latter has a pretty epic death scene (as all actors like to have), before coming back on stage to bow and whatnot, taking a rather exaggerated time to do so (mostly to allow for some last adjustments before episode 3)
The lead actress as narrator informs us that Irene has escaped the narrative designed for her. She has instead inscribed herself in one in which she lives, in which life takes precedence, in which the unexpected happens
A man comes down center stage. She joins him. They have a moment where they stare at each other awkwardly. The man is a dancer…it’s a thing about human connection. It doesn’t really matter if we don’t comprehend exactly what his movements are supposed to mean because he has constructed something for himself based on his observations and perceptions of his own personal fiction he’s created called ‘reality’
They move together for a bit. Then he kind of breaks the vibe, the lights come on slightly. He asks her to tell a joke
To describe the feeling of this moment…imagine being at the point of climax and then your partner asks you if you wouldn’t mind grabbing some milk from the supermarket or something equally as banal/unexpected
So anyway…she’s like ok fine, comes downstage, peeps to tell her joke…the opening words come out and then
End of show
It was strange, weird, and familiar at the same time. It was an evolution in the act of storytelling, blending the codes of two forms that, at times, people like to consider as incompatible, as polar opposites, as though one were in the process of devouring the other.
It helped too that it was a woman at the helm of it all.
Shows4&5: LesTourments (AuDesert and ConstruireunFeu, both preceded by Mallarmé’s UnCoupdeDésjamaisn’aboliralehasard), created by Sylvain Creuzevault, MC93
I’m putting these shows together because even though I saw AuDesert and ConstruireunFeu (this one, by the way, adapted from Jack London’s ToBuildaFire), the two pieces are both part of the greater Les Tourments project, and both begin with a performance of Mallarme’s famous poem.
So let’s start with UnCoupdeDés… then.
I’d highly recommend, for those who are not familiar with the text, to look it up online just to get a sense of how the words flow on the page, and just the extent to which it is deconstructed. That will probably make the next bit make more sense…kind of.
The performance was basically a setting of the text to music, with a lone soprano taking on the task of vocalizing the text. As she sang, the words were projected on a series of scrims hanging down from the ceiling. The way the projections worked made it look as though the words were being projected onto a series of mirrors, the copies of the copies, images of the images, repeated in such a way that it extended the space backwards, once again into an (almost) infinity. As the projected text also mirrored the way the poem was originally transcribed, following the words along as the soprano sang them required a jumping back and forth of the gaze across the scrims, much like one would jump back and forth across the page while reading the text itself.
At times, there were a couple of other actors who joined the soprano on the stage, but they mostly remained silent, save one who broke the fourth wall to directly address the audience. He, as he explained to us, was Hamlet, or the figure of ‘Hamlet’.
Hamlet is, supposedly, ‘summoned’ by the writer situated stage left and engaged in the act of writing. A woman in white crosses the stage dragging along a clear container in which a feather is suspended. Hamlet—whose face is hidden under a few layers of a black mesh veil so that it cannot be seen—affixes the feather to his hat, then comes out to address the public.
‘We can all agree that we are experiencing a singular moment,’ he says. He then launches into the beginning of a discours on the critical implications of the poem—the rupture with the Alexendrin, the signaling of the arrival of free verse—emphasizing, among other things, the fact that it, like him, is stuck in a position in between the act of making a decision or not. It is at a point of suspension, the precarious position where anything can happen.
So the question now is, why put this piece as an opener to two small playlets, both of which are not only relatively silent in terms of vocalized speech, but also are primarily concerned with the natural world? I would argue it is the notion of chance, or rather, of omnipresent unpredictability that links them. Nature has no ‘structure’, as much as one has been attempted to be imposed upon it. Man in nature is, much like with a certain facet of Mallarmé’s poem, a clash between a being that functions within a system of some kind of order and an environment that is the antithesis to it. The result is messy, brutal, disordered, yet orderly, chaos. The setbacks faced and affronted are a surprise, yet at the same time not entirely unexpected if one were to make a list of potential difficulties one would expect to arrive at any point during a particular kind of excursion into the wild (or the desert).
The torments (Tourmentes) of the title comes from this idea of evoking not only the hardships a person may encounter or must traverse in life, but also the ones a person may inflict or burden upon themselves, willingly or otherwise. The choice to set the depiction of this struggle in nature (in a style the playwright calls a “peinture animée” or a “nature vive” as opposed to a “nature morte” or still-life) could arguably be said to reflect, in a way, the impression of the insurmountability of these struggles, the feeling that, even when one feels close to overcoming or mastering them, this moment of ‘hubris’ is violently squashed (like, say, with a load of snow being dumped on one’s head). The choice to eschew understandable dialogue for barely-discernable murmurs keeps the universality of the piece intact—the connection between the audience and the spectacle being made through recognition within the acts or gestures of those on stage, rather than through discourse. I might go so far to call it a post-linguistic kind of humanism, yet communicating or storytelling through bodily gesture predates language, so I’m not sure that term itself would be just.
Minimalism? Economizing energy to focus on exerting it only on functions essential for survival? Who knows.
I swear, I am trying my hardest to write posts with as little distance between updates as possible. It’s just that work—along with a general level of tiredness I’ve been fighting as of late—has made my procrastination even worse than it usually it.
Fortunately for me, I’m writing this with only two shows on the docket to talk about, instead of the usual 5-6 (or more). Also fortunately for those of you who still (?) read this, the play breakdowns are going to be much more manageable (aka, shorter) this time around.
First up is La Bible, vaste entreprise de colonisation d’une planète habitable, presented at the small, upstairs theatre at the Théâtre de la Bastille. As was the case with Points de Non-Retour at La Colline a couple months ago, this was the first time I had ever been in the smaller upstairs theatre at La Bastille, making this a moment of spatial discovery more than anything.
As one could probably guess, the theatre itself is rather small. Small…and deep. There aren’t many rows of seats, but the ones that are there are arranged on a rather steep (by comparison to other theatre spaces I frequent) incline, making it almost inevitable that one will be looking down at the actors rather than up or directly at them. The stage was set up to look like something resembling a giant playground, with climbable structures (one of which was basically a lifeguard chair) flanking either side. The cast—five women, playing the roles of five precocious adolescent boys—were dressed in scouting uniforms, knee-high socks and awkwardly long shorts and all. Some had a little emblem embroidered on their shirt pockets (I’m assuming this is a Catholic thing since it did have something of a crucifix design on it, but I don’t want to go making claims on how official it is…anyway).
The next hour was what could best be described as a frenzy of burlesque-level nonsense and buffoonery (in the best of ways, though…at least for the most part). Fed up with the fact that the earth—god’s own ‘creation’—has been brought to the brink of (environmental) destruction by mankind without punishment from the Great One in the sky, these five kids, fresh out of a catechism class, have decided that the best and only solution would be to build a rocket ship, launch into space, and start everything anew on a distance planet.
Because what better way to build a ‘civilization’ than by using one of the world’s oldest tools for colonial dominance and suppression, the Bible?
What followed was a series of rehashing/retellings of selected Biblical passages, with some cameo appearances by Richard the Lionhearted (decked in a white tunic with a red cross, as is tradition), a robot, Dolly the Sheep, and Philip K. Dick. All of these roles were, of course, played by each of the individual children, who were switching up costumes at the pace of a seven year old who’s just been let loose on the costume box after downing a Red Bull. As a final image, a large ball and white sheet were attached onto a large crucifix-like structure hanging from the center of the ceiling. As this DIY-Jesus was hoisted up into the air, the children gathered round it dressed in either red, green or white capirotes (those pointed hoods that some Catholic brotherhoods wear during Holy Week processions, particularly in Spain…also, yes, the white ones do look a bit like KKK hoods, but this is only a coincidence), singing and dancing in a final ritualistic number.
Honestly, by the time this thing was over—what with all the singing, the costume changes, the running around, and the energy level that started at an 11 and pretty much stayed there—I almost felt I could empathize with the positively worn-out actresses, drenched in about a gallon of sweat. Criticism as to the efficacy of this type of performance aside—there were times when the frenzy became a bit much, and I found myself having to tune out for a minute to take a breather—, I couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that these performers managed to give it their all 100% for the entire hour.
And the intensity only continued last Sunday with a performance of 4.48 Psychosis (in a French-Canadian translation) at La Villette.
This was one of those rare times when I went to see a show because I genuinely wanted to, and not just to fulfill work/research obligations. I couldn’t, in good conscience, pass this one up though. I love Sarah Kane. Even before I spent the better part of a year working on my Master 2 thesis on some of her plays, I was always fascinated by her. It wasn’t until I started said thesis, however, that I began to gain a greater appreciation for her non-explicitly corporeally-violent works, in particular this one, the last play she wrote before committing suicide at age 28.
Some critics—and I think fellow playwright Edward Bond was one of the first to make this statement, though I could be wrong—consequently think of 4.48 Psychosis as a kind of suicide note. I’m hesitant about that interpretation—would not the performance, the constant bringing to life and reinterpretation of this text be the antithesis of a suicide note?—but I would agree that this is probably still one of the better plays around mental health that I’ve ever read or seen in recent memory. Opting to keep it as a solo performance, the actress first starts out behind a microphone on stage, looking something like a stand-up comic. This is our ‘in’: it’s a familiar set-up, never mind that we’re not getting jokes but an insight into the workings of a particular mind, and the people who dismiss it. Eventually, the curtains open, revealing a stage bathed in red light, with movable walls curving back on themselves to create two circular spaces on the stage—though only one of them was actually penetrated into. Whether or not at this point we were meant to be inside the actress’s head was unclear—and I’d argue deliberately—, and really to question that kind of misses the point. Because this shit doesn’t just mess with the inside of a person’s head; it screws with their whole perception of reality.
I think this second piece ended up resonating with me more than the first for several reasons, beyond the personal-academic connection to Sarah Kane. I’m not in a low a place as I was for a large part of summer/fall 2017, but I have been feeling not quite like myself these past several weeks. Maybe it’s the weather—hell, that probably has a little something to do with it—, but in any case, I feel like it’s been a while since I’ve gotten brutally honest and raw about things.
So here goes:
Going to shows by myself—constantly—is incredibly isolating. As much as I want to keep hyping myself up for getting out there and going to see things (yeah, yeah, it’s for the dissertation, but still), constantly being surrounded by people in pairs or groups really drives the point home that I am here in this purportedly social space by myself. Honestly, this feeling is the reason why I’ve tried to stop going to things on Saturday nights because who, on one of the more social nights of the week, wants to really be reminded of the fact that they have no one to talk to but their own thoughts…again?
I don’t want pity for this. I have people here. I don’t see them as often as I would like (I won’t make any comments on their end), and it’s not for lack of trying. But there are certain things about being a grad student in the humanities that no one really talks about, and this is one of them.
To really drive it home: some days, other than a brief exchange of words with a shopkeeper or person at a ticket counter (which last a total of about 5 seconds), my only in-person interactions are with my high-schoolers. Hell, sometimes, I can go a few stretches without even the latter. But, this is what happens when you have a deadline looming over your head that could spell the difference between a final dissertation-writing year in (relative) financial security, or a fucked up tuition bill and maybe more sleep sacrificed for the sake of editing a paper to earn a bit more cash. Because maybe someone will call, or maybe someone will pick up the phone…and you want to go out, see people, do things with them…you deserve that, right?
I take the time that I see people that I like very seriously, maybe more seriously now than I used to. That’s a thing that comes with time and experience, right? Learning how to value other people?
So yeah, sometimes when I leave a theatre late at night after a show, I get a bit sad because I want to talk about it and share my thoughts with someone. But then I go home and write a little bit, and remind myself that all of this will be worth it. Don’t ask me for an unbiased opinion on my thesis—those who know me well know the one thing I am incredibly self-critical about is my writing—, but I am getting closer to something. Slowly. And it’s my thing.
With that being said, this past week I did end up getting a chance to reconnect with perhaps one of my oldest friends (as in, we’ve been friends since kindergarten and now our parents hang out) who was visiting the city for the first time with her mom. Another opportunity for me to play tour guide—and to expand my repertoire of restaurant recs to now include more vegan-friendly options for her and her mom—, and a chance to show off a place that, despite this new bout of personal nonsense, I am so incredibly happy to live in.
EDIT: I forgot to mention this one thing…
So, living in a slightly older apartment has many charms, but one of them is definitely not impeccably insulated windows. Translation: things were getting a bit drafty.
Not anymore though! Why? Because I was gifted insulating curtains for my birthday.
Black, light-blocking, insulating curtains.
My excitement over these should not be taken as an exaggeration. These are literally saving my mornings/evenings (and my wallet). Yay!
I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately on the nature of theatre in general—what it is, why it’s still around, what the point of it is—and particularly in conjunction with the kind of theater I’ve been finding myself more and more drawn to as of late.
Not surprisingly, the more one goes to the theatre—the more variety of shows one sees—the more one gets a sense of what one likes, and even more so, what one does not like.
I’m not entirely sure if this general feeling of jadedness I’ve been immersed in as of late has more to do with what I’ve been seeing or with the slight floundering feeling that comes from sending off one chapter draft—oh yes, I did that last week—and knowing full well that another one needs to be started (like…now) even though exactly how that one is going to look like remains more or less a mystery. In any case, with the exception of a very bright spot courtesy of what is still my favorite theatre in the city as well as someone who I can confirm to be one of my favorite playwrights in general, the last couple of weeks have been very…meh…theatre wise.
This isn’t for lack of variety, though. What I can definitively say is that no show that I saw has been quite like any of the others, itself a testament as to the variety of things (easily) available and accessible to see in this city. On the other hand, what this also means is that not everything is going to be supremely excellent, but then again…at least the trap of monotony is avoided.
Anyway, enough of the rambling…on to more important things. Namely, the shows I’ve seen since my last post (and prepare yourselves…there are several of them).
1. Dans le pays d’hiver at the MC93 Bobigny
I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard of a show being called “geometric”, but given the aesthetic of this piece—which recalls, among other things, classical aestheticism and imagery—could stand in as the poster child for it. To be quite honest, given that I saw this piece the same day that I returned from Budapest, I wasn’t in the most active state of mind to be able to sit through a highly stylized/ritualized performance done entirely in Italian, meaning I’d have to read subtitles if I ever had any hope of understanding what was going on. So, yes, I nodded off a bit.
In short, the piece is an adaptation of certain segments of Dialogues with Leuco, written by Cesare Pavese between 1945 and 1947. The dialogues address different topics, all with a decidedly existential tint (the nature of mankind, man in relation to animal, the gods, the flood, etc), that are here undertaken by two actresses—one of whom being the playwright, Silvia Costa, herself—of similar appearance. A third actress—this one blonde in contrast to the other two brunettes—supplements the text with choreography.
As one could probably imagine, the whole thing was incredibly stylized to the point that almost rather than give pause for reflection as to the nature of humanity—or rather the humanity of those on the stage at that time—, it essentially stripped away the human element to favor instead a representation of the ‘sur’-human. Or of the god(s). And so, given that, what is it that we in the audience who are sitting there facing this, are meant to do with it all, other than take in and process the philosophy lesson that was just given to us?
Aesthetically-speaking, however, given my penchant for all things symmetrical, I will say I did quite like the geometry of the space, the clean lines that characterized the set pieces that, even when moved, at times gave the impression of looking into a prism.
2. Sopro at the Théâtre de la Bastille
I’m going to go ahead and say this now: this was my favorite play of the past few weeks.
Tiago Rodrigues is also quite possibly one of my favorite playwrights working now.
Pity he writes in Portuguese, otherwise I would just study him.
Anyway, Sopro, the title of the piece, is a reference to what used to be known as “prompters” (though the original Portuguese, as well as the French “souffleur” are, in my opinion, a bit more metaphorically fitting as titles). Somewhat of an ‘endangered’ role at this point, prompters used to have a steady—if not entirely visible—presence in the theatre, whether it was hiding in the prompter’s box downstage, or tucked away in the wings or behind a set piece, following along with the script, there to save the day should an actor drop a line.
Rodrigues, in his director notes, likened them to the lifeline of a play, that which saves the whole thing from drowning in the weight of an imposing reality that starts to flood in the moment a line is dropped and the already-precarious fiction in the process of construction on stage is thrown even further off balance. They, to paraphrase his words, occupy a space that is neither in the fiction of that being crafted on the stage itself, nor entirely outside it. They are the go-between and the barrier that keeps an already porous spatiotemporal dynamic from completely ripping apart.
And, as of now, they are in danger of being forgotten.
So when Rodrigues announced to the prompter of the National Theater of Lisbon—where he currently has artistic residency—that he wanted to write a play about her, her reaction was, unsurprisingly, a bit incredulous. A prompter, she states—and just a quick note, a lot of this is gleaned from the performance itself—, does their job well precisely by staying invisible. If people recognize or see their presence, they have undoubtedly failed. Besides, she loved the theatre, but she had no intention of ever performing in a play about herself.
The solution, then? She was onstage—yes, this is the actual prompter from the National Theatre in Lisbon—, script in hand. One by one, on a stage that looked more like a site of a theatre in decay with plants bursting through the floor boards than an active, working theatre, the actors would file in, and be directed to their positions. And then, standing behind them, the prompter, Cristina Vidal, spectacles on and index finger following along in the text, would whisper their lines to them, her voice barely audible. Some of the lines were recreations of her words, her conversations with Rodrigues or her memories of starting out in the theatre; others were those of her former theatre director, actors she worked with, roles she had to prompt for (I’m pretty sure some Shakespeare showed up in there, but…French translations of the Bard are not exactly recognizable to me…yet). She, however, remained quiet, yet present in her silence. She was the originator of the words, but the actors were the ones who gave them life.
Yet, as much as I love plays that are about the theatre as a whole—kind of like how Hollywood loves movies about themselves, except for me, the more clichéd versions of this have tended to make me cringe—what drew me into this one in particular was its honesty, and in particular, how it depicted the familial relationship that develops between not just actors but the entire theatre team. It’s hard to show the kind of support and love that comes from that without succumbing to the usual “oh my god we’re just like a big family, let’s hold hands and sing around a campfire I love all of you I found myself, etc etc etc etc”.
One thing I remember really responding well to when I saw Rodrigues’s production of Bovary at Bastille last year was the clever mastery of subtlety in his writing (and by extension, his direction) to communicate with his audience. A similar case of subtle yet effective communication occurred in this piece as well, only this time it rested more on communication through silence than spoken word. Towards the end of the play, the actors—still being prompted by Cristina—comment on how difficult a time the playwright (Rodrigues…yes, we can forgive the meta-ness here I think) has with finishing his works. After musing over, and acting out, a couple different possible endings, they settle on the one that finally, fittingly works, one that at last sees Cristina at the center of her own story.
For a large portion of the narrative preceding this, Cristina talked at length about the woman who directed the National Theatre of Lisbon when she first started on as a prompter there. This woman had, coincidentally, also been working as an actress/director there the first time Cristina attended a show there as a child, and Cristina even credits her with igniting her love of theatre. Over the years, the two worked very closely together and struck up a deep friendship that went beyond the mentor-mentee relationship they started with. Unfortunately, some years later, the director fell ill and, against the wishes of her doctor who counseled her on undergoing surgery (to remove a tumor, I believe), decides to continue on with her performance schedule, just until the end of the season. It was during one of these performances that she collapsed in the middle of the final monologue, never getting to finish her lines and close out the show properly.
So, when asked what she would do if she ever found herself alone on a stage in front of an audience, Cristina (or ‘Cristina’, as it is an actress speaking for her) responds that she would finish that unfinished monologue.
And so, one by one, the actors started to leave the stage, all save Cristina who instead slowly made her way towards center. But before they left, they all shot a quick glance back at her, and if you have ever worked in theatre, you might know the kind of glance I mean. It’s the one that, without the need for words, sends out support, encouragement, love, whatever you want to call it. It’s that thing that is difficult to pin down, but it’s also the thing that has kept me coming back to theatre because I cannot find it anywhere else. And normally it’s a hidden thing, a backstage thing. We—the audience—cannot be exposed to it, lest it expose us to the fact that these people have a history that extends beyond the bounds of the theatre space, one that requires a bit more reality—‘our’ spatiotemporal reality—to seep in than is maybe ideal. But it was there, and then Cristina finally spoke and the lights went out. How fitting.
3. The Veldt (La Savane) at Nanterre-Amandiers
Right…sometimes the best thing to say about something is nothing at all.
I mean, look, if you want to go and play loud, not that excellent, techno music while projecting surtitles on a screen that talk about how some neglectful parents gave their kids a VR room and are now surprised that the kids have just full-on escaped into that room, fine. Go ahead. Honestly though, I’m not really sure I saw the point of all this other than, yeah, maybe don’t just buy your kids’ happiness and also, I don’t really care that you got eaten by a virtual lion (or was it a real lion…who knows).
This one was done in the salle transformable at Nanterre. The whole floor was covered in thin foil. Gives it that whole futuristic look. The titular ‘savana’ was suggested through the use of installation pieces that evoked natural objects—namely, a tree…or rather, a dead tree—, as well as a robot…thing.
Ok I’m going to stop this now before I really start to hate myself.
4. L’inflammation du verbe vivre at La Colline
I feel as though my relationship with Mouawad’s work has become rather…unsteady as of late. On the one hand, his early plays along with his novels (here’s another shout-out to Anima, for its poetic, cathartic violence) are rather brilliant in their reworking (and at times subverting) of classical dramatic tropes. On the other hand, where, for instance, Rodrigues is light and subtle, Mouawad is almost unnervingly heavy-handed. This could partially be attributed to the fact that a lot of his theatre deals with trauma—in particular his own, what with growing up in Lebanon during the Civil War and having to flee the country as a young child—but sometimes I wonder if the weight of his poetics has more to do with the dramaturgical history he has tied himself to, the writers whose recorded adaptations of even older orally-passed stories he both sends up and pays homage to. I had a slight inkling of this last year when I saw Tousdesoiseaux (which, coincidentally, is being revived at La Colline in December, though I don’t think I’m in the mood for another four hour session of that right now). That feeling grew stronger with NotreInnocence. I can pretty much cement it now with this piece.
The production is billed as a sort of cinematographic theatre, and given how much time was spent staring at a screen—probably the most frontal position an audience can find itself in—I’d be more inclined to describe it as a film during which sometimes the main character pops out of the screen to talk to us.
The main storyline: Wahid, a playwright of Lebanese origin played by Mouawad himself, is suffering from a combination of writer’s block and lack of inspiration (a little on the nose, right…just wait), following the death of his friend and colleague Robert Davreu. Said friend also happened to be in the middle of translating a complete volume of the works of Sophocles, including one of his least well-known plays, Philoctetes, that Wahid’s company was set to mount in a few months. Unfortunately, given the writer’s temperament towards himself as well as towards the work, things are pretty much at a stand-still.
And so Wahid does what everyone else does when they need to find themselves: he embarks on a solo trip to Greece, whereupon, after unsuccessfully trying to visit Philoctetes’s cave (access closed due to rough waves), he decides to throw himself into the sea in an attempt to reach Hades. Because, as we all know, when one truly needs answers to the seemingly unanswerable questions life throws at us, one must seek the counsel of the dead. Hey, if it was good enough for Odysseus (and yes, we are treated to a reading of the passage in the Odyssey that talks of the moment leading to Odysseus’s decision to visit the Underworld), it’s good enough for everyone else.
Since our hero is in the Underworld, and has successfully crossed the Styx thanks to a couple of friendly fishermen, he needs a guide. Since we are in Greece—as an aside, a genuinely silly moment was when Wahid stands on a hill looking out at the expanse around him before realizing that, yes, Hades is Athens—, his guide is, what else, a taxi driver. Named Leftheris. (In Greek = freedom). Wahid’s journey takes him to a city dump (where the souls of all those who died, forgotten, at Salamis take on the form of seagulls), then to the home of a pack of stray dogs where he finally comes in contact with his soul (a dog, but not just any dog, a dog that speaks Arabic…the others all speak Greek…there’s actually quite a bit of Greek in this play, surprisingly), followed by an abandoned building where he discusses the bleak state of the world with three Greek teenagers, and finally to a sort of abandoned retirement home, the last residency of poets.
All of this, mind you, takes place mostly on screen. Occasionally, Mouawad, as Wahid, slips in and out of slats in between the screen, sometimes to signal a transition from his physical body into the virtual, pre-recorded one, others to disappear completely and thereby let the story move on to whoever, or whatever, was being shown on screen. All the footage was taken from a trip Mouawad took to Greece back in 2013, at the height of the economic crisis.
I’m not sure if I’ve talked much on here at all about certain gripes I have with classicists, or lovers of Greek classical theatre in general, but one of them is a certain dismissive attitude I’ve encountered in conversations with some of these people (mostly men, go figure) towards not necessarily modern Greece, but the history of the country following the classical era. On that note, I will say to this that at least for once we don’t have any lengthy poetic lamenting over what happened to get Greece into the state it (still) is in. There is some of that, but during the aforementioned filmed segment with the teens, they are at least given a chance to say their piece, calling out the inherent hypocrisies in the sacrificing of their generation by those that came before.
Here’s my problem with the filmed segments though: at one point, Wahid makes a side comment about how a screen is a sort of symbol of enduring presence (as in, being of the present moment). Given how the screen is interacted with in this production, I would be inclined to disagree. Instead of presence, what the constant moving back and forth inside and outside the screen did—especially as doing so, one could see the variations and changes in Mouawad’s appearance more clearly—was act as a constant, heavy reminder of the past, of a thing that was done once and that belongs to that particular moment. Conversely, if there was any presence in this, it was only in the moments when Mouawad himself was physically on stage, interacting with the flat image on screen and physically “being” in real time. But he was on stage so little compared with the amount of time spent watching the previously-recorded film (which, let’s be honest, tried a bit too hard to be deep at times) that his presence almost seemed like a gimmick in the end.
Oh and speaking of the end, he ends up getting a hold of a box in which is hidden the key to his happiness, the solution to all of his woes.
It’s a pencil.
Of course it’s a fucking pencil.
5. Crash Park, l’histoire d’une île at Nanterre-Amandiers.
We’re going to end on a slightly lighter note—thank god—with the piece I saw last night at Nanterre, this one created and directed by Philippe Quesne, the current artistic director at Nanterre-Amandiers.
I’m going to call this an anthropological/diorama study with a good dose of vaudeville and a dash of cinematic epic-ness à la Spielberg. Part of Quesne’s M.O. is creating works around micro communities, and this one is no different. The basic premise: survivors of an airplane crash find themselves stranded near a mysterious tropical island. The difference, however, between this and other stranded-on-an-island tales is that this group decides, instead of leaving (and, as the program notes suggest, going back to their commercial, monotonous, stressful, lives), to stay and make a home there.
There was very little talking in this play. If any talking did happen, it was usually small chit-chat instead of dialogue deliberately written to advance the plot. No, in this case the stage was a microscope and we were peering in to watch the little “ants” try and figure out their lives.
There was a funny little dance number involving leaves, a makeshift bar set-up inside a volcano that later turned into a club (oh, and a silly cabaret-style song about the mysteries lying inside a volcano that was made all the more ridiculous by the fact that the man singing it was doing so while wearing a Hawaiian shirt, silly sunglasses, and an airline pilot’s headset), and a ferocious octopus that threatened at the eleventh hour to destroy everything, but thankfully our little community of characters vanquished him easily.
The various costumes worn by the characters evoked time periods and settings of other ‘deserted island’ tales from the Hawaiian shirts to the 18th century pirate garb worn during the fight with the octopus. At one point, a character picked up a megaphone to announce that the ‘duty free’ cart was open, offering a selection of books including Robinson Crusoe, The Tempest, Utopia, Lord of the Flies (yes, there is a theme). In the end, the characters went to sleep inside the plastic volcano—whose plasticity and artificiality was increasingly emphasized throughout the production, particularly through the demonstration that it was easy to take apart and ‘convert’ into a new space—to the tune of Sinatra’s “Fly Me To the Moon”. What a quaint way for us researchers in the audience to leave our subjects on.
And that’s it for the plays of the past couple of weeks. Other than that, the one other significant event was my hosting of a small Friendsgiving the day after the actual holiday. I grabbed one and a half roast chickens, and whipped up some stuffing, mashed sweet potatoes, and cranberry sauce. Other friends provided veg, cheese, dessert, the much-needed cranberries for the sauce, and wine (of course). It was, perhaps, one of the more cozy of Thanksgivings I’ve had in recent memory (I think crowding around a tiny table to eat helped with this a bit).
Until the next (massive) theatre post, my readers!
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.