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

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