Thursday, July 12, 2007

We're all Animals - Fables for Any Age (Theater - Fables de la Fontaine by the Comedie Francaise directed by Robert Wilson)

I saw the Comedie Francaise production of Fables de la Fontaine directed by Robert Wilson at the Lincoln Center Festival last night. I am not a fan of Wilson's, actually I'm not a fan of the Comedie Francaise either. I certainly didn't have the New York Times Ben Brantley's feeling that I was in the presence of brilliance, but the evening did offer some of the wisdom of La Fontaine's acerbic tales and some of Robert Wilson's stark trademark minimalist beauty.

I remember seeing the Comedie Francaise doing Racine in Paris, probably back in 1984. There is something about that exaggerated style of oration that simply bores me to death. I can admire the craft the way I would, say, really exquisite needlepoint, but I cannot get involved in anything beneath the surface of the characters. They force me to make a choice - perfection is the language they tell the story in - so when that facade is scratched, I can no longer admire their skill and I am also removed from the story. People can tell me this is the style and give me the reasons it evolved until they are blue in the face. I go to the theater to see life's mess. I even have this limitation when watching ballet - Baryshnikov is dazzling and highly skilled, so he almost never falls, but if he does, you fall out of the story with him.

I guess that was part of the problem last evening, these actors were practising a craft they are masters at - this declamatory style of acting - but they mixed it with precise, physical movements, creating clown-like characterizations, and story telling. They mostly fell short in these latter categories because they are amateurs at it. Theater de la Complicite has made an art of telling a story with a bold physicalization and deep feeling. These actors had a limited physical repertoire and no movement coach. Robert Le Page's troupe creates highly imaginative layered episodes with stunning stage mechanics - these, with a few exceptions never left the language of cliche. Peter Brook's company work for long months to find human substance behind simple story telling . Instead, these skilled actors hopped, danced, screeched and croaked like a bunch of silly amateurs. But there were moments when these skilled artistes strutting like chickens and prancing as foxes found something amusing and fitting to the sharp, quippy tone of these moralistic tales.

There were times that their trademark declamatory style was a way for the actor to fashion their voice like the animal's, in this case it really worked well. In playing a rooster, Gerard Diroudon got beyond simply making the noise anyone reading an animal story to a child might make. He found a marriage of animal sound and heightened theatrical speech that was funny and instantly recognizable. His physicalization of the rooster was also very detailed. Francoise Gillard's lap dog begging for affection was equally hilarious. Moidele Bickel's costumes were an excellent combination of identifying elements of the animal with human clothing elements that suggest the animal. In other words, he didn't simply hide an actor inside a suit. There was an anthropomorphization that added to the wryness of tone Wilson went for. For example, the rooster wore high heeled shoes that compelled him to put each foot down very precisely, like a bird. The lap dog wore a curly fur stole - like a spoiled socialite - and tight leggings which were stuffed above the knee. But there I go - I am reduced to discussing costumes in order to discuss what was good about this theatrical experience.

Wilson's choice to frame the evening with La Fontaine presenting or possibly creating his tales before us in the court as he ages, was one that added some meaning through context. Michael Galasso composed contemporary baroque-style music that placed us in period instantaneously. These tales do not think much of human, or should I say animal nature. Often La Fontaine seemed to sneer at his patrons as he bowed to them, which seemed only to be proof of his bleak view of the animal kingdom as a bunch of lying, greedy, flattering snobs. Yet this was really the substance of the evening. It was a courtly and highly decorous pantomime that could not disguise the true nature of the beasts (of which we are clearly one). The tales' messages are timeless and worth hearing, and the simplicity of the primary colored background, a simple lion's mask worn by a man sporting evening dress and dreadlocks, and his silly little storybook roar presented the tale starkly enough to hear it. So finally the language of the evening succeeded in its mission of telling these stories in an unsentimental language. If you want to look at deeper levels or leave the theater moved by the stories' content you would be disappointed but I finally experienced each tale like a cold, briny oyster with the sharp tang of mignonnette. Their morals should sting a little. Take this one which I've adapted just slightly: Reason offends the mighty. What they get in their head is that animals and men all exist for their sakes. To object is the worst of mistakes, sheer folly. "I quite agree, but then what's to be done?" Keep still, or else speak and run.

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