Saturday, December 18, 2010

Seeing Through the Fourth Wall

I was recently lucky enough to score a free ticket to Le Théatre du Soleil (The Sun Theater), for--well, I'm not quite sure you could call it a "play," but more of an avant-garde theatrical "experience".

Getting to the theater is an experience in and of itself, involving riding to the end of metro line 1 to wait with a crowd of well-dressed (if slightly eccentric) intelligentsia for the shuttle that will deposit you in the middle of the Vincennes forest, at the reclaimed munitions factory that now houses the acting troupe. The civilized buzz of my fellow spectators (all of whom seemed to be part of an esoteric community who attend the same readings, lectures and performances and therefore all knew each other) got me pumped up for the four-hour long show.

From the shuttle stop, it was only a short walk through snow-covered trees to the warm glow of the playhouse, the beacon for our bohemian pilgrimage.

A snowman in a top hat greeted us by the ticket window:
The theater itself:
Once inside, you cross to the auditorium to select your seat, reserving it by snagging the numbered sticker attached to its back and affixing it to your ticket. Then you return to the main hall, where an 8 euro gourmet meal and 1.50 glasses of wine, ginger punch or cider await you, served by actors who are already glowing with garish stage make-up and handlebar mustaches, decked out in vests and suspenders for their upcoming roles.
The piece I saw was called "Les Naufragés du Fol Espoir" ("The Shipwreck of Crazy Dreams"), and like all pieces performed at the théâtre, it was a collaborative work produced through an authorial partnership between French theatrical legend Ariane Mnouchkine and famous feminist Hélène Cixous, with heavy contributions and interpretations supplied by the team of actors (meaning that the play itself is a living, evolving thing, that takes almost a year to solidify into a more-or-less constant form). The concept of the theater is simple enough: the "fourth wall" that separates the audience from the world of the play is barely there; there is no offstage area, and all of the scene changes and sound effects occur on-stage.

If you peeked behind the bleacher-style seating you could see the costume, make-up and props stations. The smell of sawdust and paint made me nostalgic for my time in the "pit" during high school drama club.
This particular show also featured a bizarre mise-en-abime situation, as the play was about a film crew producing a silent movie. About a third of the show was actors acting in the play, and the remaining two thirds were actors acting in a play about acting in a silent movie, complete with visible special effects, a musical score and a projection screen to display the silent movie dialogue captions. Pretty trippy.

Here's the entire cast, during the endless curtain call at the end. (The French adore curtain calls. The cast returns to the stage over and over again, and you clap until your hands are chapped and you're wondering if the applause might outlast the actual performance.)

I persevered despite my distaste for French applause, however, because there was no doubt in my mind that the actors deserved it. The show was truly magnificent; and if it weren't for the slight ache in my butt I wouldn't even have noticed the length. With the silent movie subtitles, it was pretty easy for non-native speakers to follow, too--perfect for myself and the students I was with.

My one critique of the play has to do with its themes. While admittedly intriguingly introspective, the play tries a little too hard to be profound with its philosophical undertones and winds up instead coming off as clumsy. I also found it to be a little too heavy-handed with its pro-socialist, anti-capitalist moral, (albeit in an endearing, idealistic and extremely French sort of way). Nevertheless, I'll end this post with a strong recommendation to go see the play if you have the chance, and a quote from co-author Hélène Cixous that illustrates both sides of my impressions, both the value and the trying-too-hard triteness:

"Les Naufragés du Fol Espoir se veut une comédie épique et romanesque, plongée dans une époque qui fut le berceau tumultueux de la nôtre. Une histoire édifiante, un voyage, un bateau, un naufrage, une île déserte, des émigrants, un fol espoir… "Et si nous y allions ? Si nous cherchions la lune sur la terre ? De quoi aurait-elle l’air ? Elle serait blanche, brillante et vierge. Ce serait une île. Imaginons. On pourrait y tracer le modèle de l’humanité future. On dessinerait la démocratie idéale trois mille ans après Eschyle (…)"

"The Naufragés du Fol Espoir was conceived as an epic and romantic history, immersed in the tumultuous era that begat our own. An enlightening narrative, a voyage, a ship, a storm, a deserted island, emigrants, a crazy dream...

"And if we really went there? If we sought the moon on the earth? What form would it take? It would be blank, shining, unspoiled. It would be an island. Just imagine it: there, we could sketch out a model for the future of humanity. Finally, three thousand years after Eschyle, we could design an ideal democracy ..."

--Hélène Cixous

Sunday, December 12, 2010

God Jul!

I have a confession: I am obsessed with Christmas.

I think the blame lies with my mother, who raised us on Christmases chock full of hot chocolates stirred with candy canes, hand-written notes from Santa and family expeditions to Christmas tree farms to seek out the perfect tree to cut down, haul home and lavish with the love of years of handmade decorations. As soon as the Thanksgiving leftovers were neatly tucked into Tupperware, the Christmas boxes were hauled out from the garage, supplying us with enough holiday music, movies and decorations to last the whole season. And although the magic of Santa has long faded, Christmas has become even more fun as I've grown. It's now an occasion that reunites us, and in fact, I fly back to the States this Thursday for my first homecoming since last Christmas. In the meantime, I've been getting into the Christmas spirit on the weekends, when I blast Nat King Cole and the Carpenters through my laptop and bake (cookies, cranberry bread, you name it).

While I'm looking forward to finally being "home," it has been fun to see Europe deck its halls and to explore how other nations "do" the holiday. I don't think many Americans realize how many of the Christmas things we take for granted are really limited to our own country, for example: Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer (my tutoring children stared at me blankly the other day when I mentioned him), candy canes (or peppermint in general), stockings (here they will often do wooden shoes, or just gifts), pumpkin pie, Christmas cookies (here they eat a jelly roll cake known as a bûche de noël, or yule log), and gingerbread men and houses (here they do literal ginger bread; a dense brick of a thing with nuts and raisins).

I'll fill you in with more details of the French noël tomorrow, but first, here's the Danish approach to a god jul (merry Christmas) and the last installment of my Copenhagen photos.

Danish portrayals of Santa often include him carrying a jolly looking pig. At first it struck me as random, if rather cute, and then my inner pessimist kicked in and I realized what Sinister ol' St. Nick had in mind for that pig. A quick chat with a Dane confirmed my suspicions: little Wilbur was headed for the main platter at Christmas dinner (and with a garnish already in mouth, no less!):
Another common Danish Christmas sighting: toadstools and dwarves (not elves, per se, but little forest gnomes that you'd imagine living in small thatched cottages under toadstools). When asked why, Danes reply with a "duh" look. Apparently they're so synonymous with Christmas over there that there doesn't need to be a reason.
The last seemingly odd variety of Christmas decoration: birds (and owls in particular)
Some of the Christmas things I found weren't so different as much as they were just very Scandinavian. For example, these fair-skinned, blond-haired, blue-eyed winter figurines (which, if you added tall and lanky, would correspond with the real population of Copenhagen):
Another quintessentially Danish item was this Christmas arcade game, which featured children wearing santa hats and vests engaging in Copenhagen's favorite activity: cycling! (the object was to press a "stop" button, timing it just right so that one of the bikes stopped in front of a prize that you wanted).
The Danish holiday foods of choice are Aebleskivers (little dough balls sprinkled with powdered sugar and served with cranberry jelly) and gløg (mullet wine with raisins and almond slivers). Here's a cute anthropomorphisized sign:
And here are my real-life samples, purchased from a Christmas market at Nørreport. Delicious:
A Christmas window display in a downtown department store:
One of the highlights of my trip was browsing the Christmas market in the famous lighted Tivoli gardens:
...which featured ice sculptures...
...various theme park rides (here you see the lights of little "sailboats" that children could take out on the pond) and scenic lights (you can also see the illuminated weeping willow)...
...a candy land area for children...
...and, oddly enough, light castles from exotic lands, such as this Taj Mahal-looking place...
...and this Japanese-inspired temple thing.
I even managed to find some mistletoe, which I realized is also a pretty bizarre item to associate with Christmas, but at least this one was familiar.
Alas, with the boy still across the ocean in Canada I had no one to kiss beneath it. Less than a week until reunion now, though. What an excellent Christmas present.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes

A few short weeks ago, Paris looked like this:
Your steps crunched, and there was that earthy smell of decaying leaves that always reminds me of the scratchy feeling of new, back-to-school sweaters and the slick coldness of pumpkin seeds that slip through your fingers when you scoop out their fibrous innards:
However, although the official start of winter is still several weeks away, Paris has unofficially made the transition. To start with, it's been really cold (by temperate Parisian standards, at least-- what zee hell is with these below freezing temperatures this early in the year?). I'd wager even the Frenchiest of the Frogs has been giving his cigarette break a second thought, rather than brave the chill. We've also already had days of snow with decent accumulation (by Parisian standards this means any accumulation at all, but still!)

The first snow I saw was two weeks ago, on a student excursion I lead to a marché de noel at La Défense, Paris' financial district (you can see the iconic "Grande Arche" in the background of this photo). The light flakes are a bit hard to make out, but they began falling just as started to sip on our mulled wine, and they made for a perfect atmosphere to sample pain d'épices (gingerbread) and do some Christmas shopping:

A few days later, on a Wednesday evening, it snowed a little more. I had the good fortune to have time for a stroll through the Champs de Mars before I hurried off to my English tutoring appointment, for a family that lives just beside the famous Tour Eiffel:Then there was this past Saturday, our first significant snowfall. I was playing tourist with some visiting friends at the time, so I got to admire the snowy French countryside from the window of the RER C, and then tromp through the snow with the other shivering tourists to pass through the gilded gates and into the chateau of Versailles:

Seeing the snow-blanketed gardens was definitely the highlight of the trip:

My next snowy encounter was yesterday, when it made for a slightly annoying, wet-socked commute to and from various appointments. My walk through a snowy marché de noel on the Champs Elysées en route slightly made up for it, however:
This frosty bear was on the side of a crêpe booth where I grabbed a quick raclette (pre-mixed potato and ham fondue) lunch:
It was good weather for marrons chauds (roasted chestnuts), sold from carts up and down the market streets (and elsewhere in the city, sold by hobos who roast them over empty drums in shopping carts):
The manège looked particularly picturesque in the snow:
And then today it snowed again; fat, floating flakes that stuck and quickly formed inches, then melted into slushy puddles that soaked the calves of pedestrians and stole the friction from cars. I'm all for the change from the standard gray skies and cold drizzle of Parisian winters, but I have to admit that the snow is getting a little old. The walk from work to the métro at lunchtime, only about an hour after the snow started, was already pretty miserable:

I felt particularly bad for the folks who, like this guy, relied on bikes or motorcycles for transport. The métro was a particularly inviting alternative on a day like today, which is to say warm and carefree (although the above-ground lines, like the 6, seemed to have problems).

The contrast between the snow on the awning of a produce market and the tropical fruit on display made me chuckle:
From my apartment I could spy a few children making the most of the shared yard behind their complex to throw snowballs and do cartwheels in the powder:
By the evening, when I was heading to tutoring, the snow still hadn't stopped and the situation was becoming pretty hairy. Commuters huddled on street corners, trying to determine the path of shallowest puddles from one curb to the next and avoid the patches of ice as the slush began to refreeze. Cars that had stopped at lights slid around the street trying to start again. The elderly eyed the ground warily, treading cautiously with their canes. I was twenty minutes late to tutoring with the time the trudging added to my commute, but by the time I emerged two hours later the snow had (happily) stopped.

When I finally got home, I was greeted by a jolly bonhomme de neige next to the café outside my front door:
I wondered if he had been created by the same children I had seen cartwheeling earlier. I smiled at the sight, feeling slightly guilty for my Grinchy anti-snow attitude, and marveled at the curling puff of my breath through the chill night air as my numb fingers fumbled for my keys.