15 July 2009

'Les Éphémères' (Lincoln Center Festival 2009)

Like Katona’s Ivanov, the Théâtre du Soleil’s two-part, seven-hour Les Éphémères at the Park Avenue Armory also opened on 7 July, the first day of the Lincoln Center Festival. Scheduling conflicts meant that my theater companion, Diana, and I couldn’t attend Part I, so we elected to see Part II alone; according to the company’s publicity, each part could be viewed by itself, and that turned out to be true. So, on Wednesday, 8 July, Diana, her sister, and I met at the Armory entrance at 67th and Park and took in the nearly three-and-a-half hour performance directed by the company’s founder, Ariane Mnouchkine. The performance took place in the Armory’s Wade Thompson Drill Hall, a vast open space (200 by 300 feet and one of the largest unobstructed interiors in New York City) with a very high ceiling (69 feet). The playing area had been narrowed to a broad runway by the steep, narrow seating risers the company had built on two sides of the hall. Christopher Isherwood of the Times characterized the resulting space as “circus-like"--Joe Dziemianowicz of the Daily News saw an operating theater and church pews--but my impression was that it resembled a bullring. (Ironically, in the middle of Part II there is a scene in which an old man is teaching what appears to be his grandson some toreador techniques with a bull’s head on wheels while the boy wields the sword and red muleta. This was probably a coincidence, but the scene may have been the inspiration for the configuration.) At either end of the runway were wide openings covered by double drapes through which the chariots, the large wheeled platforms on which the individual scenes were mounted, entered and exited the playing arena. Above each entrance was a small balcony: the one over the east entrance was home to the lighting technician and his laptop-controller; the one over the west housed the musical ensemble. Jean-Jacques Lemêtre’s music, some live and some taped, in styles reminiscent now of Eastern, now of Western music, underscored the varying moods, though I sometimes found it distracting.

I have to say a few words about the chariots and the moving of the scenes because it was a remarkable achievement in its own right. It was very low-tech, since the means of locomotion was human--members of the ensemble pushed the chariots across the runway and rotated them to make all angles visible to all spectators. The platforms were square or round and some were quite large, say 10 feet across, and others relatively small, for one- or two-character scenes. Each was a complete set, designed by Everest Canto de Montserrat, from floor coverings to furniture to set dressing and props. (Some were quite crowded, like an over-furnished or messy room. Variety reported that some objects were contributed by members of the troupe.) The sets ranged from rooms in houses or apartments to entrance ways to offices and doctors’ examining rooms to outdoor scenes of various locations. In effect, they worked like a spotlight that has isolated a small section of a realistic place. I don’t know how many of the platforms there were backstage, or how many technicians and stage hands were back there setting them up for each new entrance, but they each had to be completely reset within minutes of the end of one scene, which often ended as one platform was moved off the opposite end of the runway as the new one entered at the other end. (From what I could tell at intermission, the two end areas, the off-stage spaces, weren’t large enough to house more than a couple of chariots each, so they must have had to be reset pretty continuously to keep the production moving smoothly--which it did beautifully. The logistics alone were impressive.) In most cases, the actors in the scene moved on in place on the chariots (though a few entered or exited on foot and stepped into the scene). Scenes were played almost entirely within the confines of the chariot, though a few scenes that moved from one chariot to another--a doctor exiting her office and entering a patient’s room, for instance--required an actor to step off the platform, walk across a short section of the runway floor, and step up onto a new platform.

This was all what you might expect from a company that’s worked on this kind of set-up before. (Le Dernier Caravansérail used similar moving platforms four years ago in Damrosch Park.) It just takes practice and concentration. More impressive to me was the technique of moving the platforms around the playing area. The company members who manipulated them, the “actor-pushers,” have to be especially agile, strong, and steady, and they have to have excellent control over their own bodies--and exceptional stamina. Dressed in dark work clothes and black sneakers, they worked a little like Kabuki stage assistants: you could see them perfectly well, but you treated them as invisible as they went about their task. As they rolled the platforms on stage, they almost crawled, though I noticed that their knees didn’t really touch the floor so they were pushing from a low crouch. When they reached the center (or, occasionally, some other spot on the runway) where the scene was to be performed, they nearly lay down on the floor on their sides, sometimes with their upper bodies raised and used their legs to propel the chariot around in a slow spin so that it could be viewed from all perspectives. (This is all very hard on the back and legs, I’d imagine--and there’s a physiotherapist on the production staff.) Isherwood compared this to a camera circling above the actors in a film. All of this was accomplished absolutely fluidly and silently--neither the actor-pushers nor the platforms made a sound of any kind. (Another thing I don’t know, of course, is the technology for constructing the chariots, especially the wheels. High tech or low, they are minor engineering feats.) While the acting and conception of Les Éphémères was a total joy, this part of the production was a small, fascinating theatrical accomplishment as well. I can’t quantify the contributions it made, but I will say that it enhanced the overall impact of the production.

The title Les Éphémères means “The Ephemerals” or “Ephemera.” It refers to the moments in life that are there briefly and then gone, lost to memory. Mnouchkine says that the ephemerals are “Human beings! We are the ephemeral.” According to company publicity, the original idea was to contemplate what you would do if the end of the world were imminent. That idea morphed into something much more general as the company worked on it. While Mnouchkine and her troupe used oral histories and records of immigrants, migrants, and refugees to compile the text for Le Dernier Caravansérail, the company’s last trip to LCF in 2005, this script seems to have been assembled in-house by the company members and Mnouchkine through improvisation and discussion--“and perhaps an old photo album.” I haven’t found anything that says so or not, but I imagine that a lot of the material was drawn from the memories, family lore, and experiences of the cast. Mnouchkine says in an interview excerpted in the program that there is no written text, so the script, too, is ephemeral. (This must be a metaphorical statement to an extent, since there were projected supertitles--not so hard to negotiate as recently with Ivanov--so a spoken text must have been set at some point in order for there to have been a translation rendered. Unless, of course, there were simultaneous translators backstage typing away furiously. Two “translators” are listed in the program.) What Mnouchkine, whose vision guides not only the whole Théâtre du Soleil but obviously steered the création collective for Les Éphémères, says the performance depicts “the present which is no longer the present when I say the word ‘present’ to you. . . . The play is made of the moments that have made us.”

The play, performed in French with English supertitles, takes place in France in the present--now--though many of the scenes--memories, really--go back to different parts of the past, from World War II to as recently as 15 year ago. Some of the scenes were connected, episodes in a longer narrative--the WWII scenes, for instance--and others were only one snapshot long. Some of the characters were younger and older incarnations of the same person. All the tales were personal--though some, like the ones that took place during the Nazi occupation, had larger implications. Some of the moments were one person’s memory, triggered by some stimulus like Proust’s madeleines; others were the collected recollections of participants or observers who pieced them together bit by bit. Some of the chain scenes did continue from Part I to Part II, but they were structured so that each part was, indeed, independently comprehensible. Only after I read some of the reviews, which covered both halves of the program, did I see how some of the stories I watched in Part II, which seemed self-contained, were continuations of stories begun the night before in Part I. The poignancy and greater implications of the scenes, whether continuations or one-offs, were not harmed by seeing only one part of Les Éphémères.

In fact, the length of the program--three hours and twenty minutes with an intermission during which cookies and water are served on stage by the cast--and the uncomfortable seating made me quite glad to have attended only half the production, even though what I saw on stage was exquisite. Too much of a good thing, you understand . . . . One reason for this response was that the stories themselves, whether long or short, were not so important, and more of them wouldn’t have made a difference in the impact of Les Éphémères overall, I don’t think. What impressed was the treatment of memories, reminiscences, passing moments, forgotten histories, and that was communicated brilliantly in one three-hour performance. (Caravansérail was much the same: it told stories, some small and some extended, of displaced people. The point was made just as strongly in Part I as in Part II; repeating it didn’t make it truer.) In fact, not all the stories were themselves very interesting dramatically; the arc of the whole evening was. (I come back to the presentation, which enhanced the theatrical success of the program by being so damn well conceived and executed. It was partly a case of the medium being the message.) The longest story, the search by a woman for the story of her grandparents and her mother’s childhood in the 1940s, was possibly the least engrossing. This was partly because we’ve all heard and seen this story told and retold many times. In Part II, the tale opened when the woman came to the state archives looking for some information on her grandparents, whom she knew only by name and a few scattered facts, and spoke to an archivist who eventually found some documents pertaining to their occupation before the war, their deportation when the Germans occupied France--they were Jewish--and their fate. I could have guessed what was going to be revealed, and many of the subsequent scenes of this history, which was threaded through the whole evening, were predictable as well. As an example of how this kind of background is pieced together one detail at a time and how one step can lead to another source of information, the arc was interesting, and the performances of the people in the story and the small moments of contact and memory were gorgeous--as was the acting all through the piece. There were 15 scenes in Part II (and another 14 in Part I), winnowed down from about 400; the company included 23 adult actors and 9 children (who rotated performances) playing nearly 80 roles in the two halves.

The most charming vignette, a single snapshot, was “You Live in My House,” in which a young woman, Claire (Delphine Cottu), is found hanging around the garden entrance to a house where she used to live as a child. The son (Sébastien Brottet-Michel) of the woman who lives there waves her away, but she stays until the daughter (Camille Grandville) arrives and lets her in. Claire wants to visit her old room and film the house. When she enters the sitting room and sees the current owner, an older woman who has suffered a breakdown (Juliana Carneiro da Cunha), Claire recognizes her as her second-grade teacher, Madame Dubris. We learn that Mme. Dubris has been incommunicative and agoraphobic since one of her students had been beaten to death by classmates in front of her. She never recovered from the shock and the inability to prevent the attack. For the first time since her breakdown, the old teacher becomes animated as she shows Claire around the house and Claire tells some of the stories about evidence of her old life left behind. It was a tiny little story, but a gem among the semi-precious stones. Like the other scenes, the acting was low-key, naturalistic, and stunning.

Another scene, one of the episodes in the tale of the search by Jeanne (Cottu) for her family’s history, shows a woman, Nora (Carneiro da Cunha), who is caring for the little Aline, Jeanne’s mother as a child, after the girl’s parents have been transported by the Germans. Nora asks Aline if she knows any prayers, and Aline recites a broche, but confesses she doesn’t know the meaning of the words. Nora teaches the girl the Lord’s Prayer in French, explaining each unfamiliar word and phrase so the child won’t just understand them as meaningless sounds. (Later, in an eerie echo, a Nazi occupier utters the Lord’s Prayer in German.) It’s clear that Aline and her family had been assimilated Jews, more French than Jewish. Maman probably lit the Sabbath candles and said the Friday prayers, so little Aline learned the sounds, but not the meaning of her religious heritage. That would hardly have been uncommon; but what it made me think of was a subject that has fascinated me for years. Not too many years ago there were reports of people in New Mexico, descendents of the Conquistadors who settled in New Spain in the 16th century, who discovered that they were also descended from Marranos, secret Jews who had fled the Inquisition. Their Jewish faith had long been lost to them; they all grew up considering themselves Catholic. Years before this series of self-discoveries, however, my father told a story of a colleague in the Bonn embassy who had taken a bicycle trip trough Spain. Forced to spend the night on the road after one leg of his journey, he stopped at a farmhouse. Before the evening meal, he watched as the woman of the house lit candles and mumbled some unintelligible words before the family sat down to eat. Realizing that it was Friday night, the traveler asked what the woman was saying. She admitted that she had no idea what the words meant, but that her mother and grandmother had always performed the ritual on Fridays, so she continued the practice. The family was Catholic, of course--this was the time of Franco when all other religions were outlawed--so the visitor didn’t say anything, but he understood that he was in the home of the descendents of Marranos whose real heritage had been lost to history. Ephemeral, indeed!

Once again, I was impressed with the ensemble playing of a company that has been together--the 70 members of Théâtre du Soleil practically live together--for decades. Ivanov called for some fireworks, but Les Éphémères was quiet and truthful, without flash or force. Even the children--especially the children--were controlled and solid, the whole ensemble like people you might have been eavesdropping on. Which, in fact, was what we were doing, wasn’t it? (Steppenwolf, for example, might be able to do this kind of work here, and I would like to have seen how the original cast of August: Osage County worked together before some of them were replaced. Les Éphémères does share something with AOC: both plays were created by actors--AOC by actor-dramatist Tracy Letts and Les Éphémères by a company of actors. This may well account for the nature of the roles in Les Éphémères and why they worked so well with a style that was almost what we used to call “studio acting”: real, honest, unfrilly, but small, intimate, quiet.)

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