Les Éphémères, created collectively by Ariane Mnouchkine’s fabled company Le Théatre du Soleil and performed at the Park Avenue Armory for the Lincoln Center Festival 2009, exemplifies theatre’s importance and its pleasures. Legendary French director Mnouchkine conceived the stunning, two-part, seven-hour long event, and transplanted it to the US with many of the company’s trademark devices intact.
Théatre du Soleil makes its home at the Cartoucherie, a large old factory just outside Paris, where arriving audiences typically watch the actors preparing for their performances, and join them at impromptu meals at intermission and after the show. The communal atmosphere, and the company’s willingness to reveal the apparatus of performance that conventional theatre so insistently hides, immediately invites spectators to participate not just in the play’s reception, but in the production of its ambiance—that is, its warmth and its demonstrations of human connections over time, space, and history.
At the Armory in New York, the cast’s dressing area lined one end of the large hall into which the theatre auditorium was built. With floor-length curtains tied back to frame the buzz of the cast’s pre-show preparations, spectators could observe the actors sitting together at long tables, peering into mirrors lit with bare bulbs, or putting on their make-up, or arranging their props or costumes. Children ran between the tables, although since many of them, too, performed in the production, they were as busy as their adult counterparts (some of whom are their parents; this is a company for whom the public overlaps and intertwines with the private).
Climbing the steps up to the theatre built within the armory, spectators look down onto a playing floor arranged between two banks of steeply raked seating. Each long row of benches was built with a half-wall that butted up against spectators’ knees, onto which some people leaned in to watch the action. Little pen lights dot these walls, so that when you look across the stage into the seats opposite, if the stage lights are dark enough, the other side of the house looks like a night sky specked with unusually orderly stars. That image represents just a smidgen of the magic the company conjured at the Armory.
Les Éphémères offers a deceptively simple but sumptuously rich day of theatre. The numerous stories told by the large cast of actors, many of whom play several roles, range from brief vignettes that sketch a particularly clarifying moment in otherwise ordinary lives, to longer, interlocking stories that draw on personal memory and national history. The play’s longest tale winds in and out of the present, finally finding its meaning in a family history haunted by the Holocaust and by personal acts of supreme courage and kindness or of the basest cowardice and fear.
Whether or not the stories tie together neatly, they all touch each other with some basic fact about humanity: that people can be good or evil; that love is triumphant until it fails; that the past shadows people; that simple pleasures can be taken without being bought; and that the present is a thin filament of time inexorably linked to the past and the future.
Written and delivered in French (with supertitles projected on either side of the theatre for easy viewing), Les Éphémères’ dialogue is short and simple. No one monologues; their speech clips out, functional and sometimes expressive, but composed of quotidian, idiomatic expressions that sound comfortably familiar. The play underlines how easily people understand one another by juxtaposing times when the characters don’t, or when they withhold information to try to control the present or the future.
For example, in a memory piece that turns out to be surprisingly central to the play toward the end of Part II, Aline, a young French child whose Jewish parents have been deported during the war, is left in the care of Nora, a sympathetic Catholic woman who teaches her the Lord’s Prayer and winds up saving her life. When an oily German officer happens upon Aline playing on a beach, his cajoling, manipulative words aren’t translated, so that the audience (if they can’t understand German) hears him just as Aline does. The pompous, vaguely sinister officer reduces himself to gesturing to make himself understood.
The actor clarifies the difficulty of communicating across languages and yet at the same time, how much can be understood without knowing another vocabulary. The German officer’s intentions are horrifyingly clear—he’s testing Aline’s ethnicity, mistrusting the cross that hangs around her neck, probing her for evidence of Jewishness. Thanks to Nora’s prescient instruction, when the officer insists she say a prayer, Aline rattles off the one she’s been taught, instead of the Jewish brucha she learned as growing up.
Les Éphémères addresses the costs of erasing identity and piecing it back together over time.Although Aline’s story threads through the play most prominently, other vignettes share a similar theme. Gaelle, a young woman proprietor of a café, holds herself just out of reach of those she so generously serves, casting her glance through the café window and seeing her personal history play out just beyond reach of the present. As the scenery of her past is rolled into the playing space, we watch Gaelle as a child, helplessly observing her father beat her mother and then try to apologize.
Later scenes show that eventually, Gaelle’s father kills her mother in a car accident, in which Gaelle is also hurt but survives. Her story connects subtly with another of the play’s vignettes, in which a lonely girl whose mother and sister have also been killed in a car accident forms a friendship with the ostracized transgendered person who lives in her building. The girl’s father bottles up his grief, which poisons their domestic space enough that she wants to stay away from their apartment. Before long , the father, too, visits the transgendered woman, breaking down emotionally as she looks on with quiet compassion.
The domestic violence Les Éphémères depicts is as horrifying as the Nazi’s state violence and just as indelible for those who suffer it. And yet, the production suggests, people soldier on, resisting, reaffirming, triumphing over personal and political trauma in their own quotidian ways. Their prosaic lives prove their victory over forces that would destroy them, be it the ravages of Nazi ideology or the devastation of mercurial, abusive patriarchal power.
Mnouchkine and her cast embody these themes in gorgeous, moving theatrical metaphors.In Les Éphémères’ opening image, the house lights go down and a circular wooden disc perhaps twelve feet across, which the company calls a “chariot,” is rolled out from behind a nearly sheer gray curtain at one end of the playing space. Several people busy themselves around the platform, carefully building a set while spectators watch. Someone holds a pen light in their teeth to light their work; someone else drills a half-wall into the chariot’s floor.Others carry on a sofa, a coffee table, a small cabinet; others dress the set with magazines, books, papers, photos, and dozens of other little objects that make a room a place where someone lives.
The spectators watch as these people fill the small set, then laugh as they roll the finished playing space off through a matching curtain at the other end of the space, as though all this meticulous work has been for nothing. But it soon becomes clear that this careful dressing of a small set represents the work the company will do throughout the richly textured and evocative afternoon and evening; they carefully embellish the outlines of lives that other productions draw only faintly. At the end of Part I, the company just as precisely dismantles another set, then rebuilds yet another at the start of Part II. The mirrored tasks speak volumes about what we’ve seen in between.
It turns out that those we might at first think are stagehands are actually part of the cast, as each performer shares the labor of literally moving the production from moment to moment and place to place. The chariots, like the wagons of a pageant play, are rolled through the long, narrow playing area by actors who push them along and around with their arms, their legs extending out behind them to give the sets momentum. Their movements look like dance; some of them drag their toes across the floor with graceful flourishes, and each of them exudes as much electrifying presence as the actors performing on the platforms they control.
The actors moving the chariots watch the actors “on stage” with great empathy and affection.They aren’t performing, per se, but they watch with a heightened sense of presence, creating a bridge between the characters created just above them and the spectators lining either side of the space. One of the day’s many pleasures is seeing people who’ve performed wrenching, touching, or comic moments later dressed in dark, unobtrusive clothing and helping move other scenes along. The cast doesn’t hide its dual roles, but uses them to empathize with both the actors in the scenes and the spectators, as we all experience these vital slices of life.
The chariots each contain their own working world. When the characters wash their dishes, they dip them into water in real sinks. When they cook, the frying pans smoke as the stoves heat the eggs or boil the pasta water. When they sit down to eat, they consume the food they’ve just made. When they watch television, spectators, too, can see the movies or images they refer to on the small screens on the set.
Although the cast creates each scene with ultra-realistic detail, the production revels in its obvious theatricality. The acting style lies somewhere beyond Stanislavsky, closer to post-modern performance art, as the performers venerate the simple tasks of daily life while they play the complexity of emotions that drive them: making tea, cooking pasta, signing papers, putting children to bed, getting dressed, combing the sand on a beach, lighting a fire, giving an ultrasound, eating dinner.
In some of the scenes, the characters never reveal more of themselves than their actions. For instance, in “The Farm Next Door or Deliverance,” a man and woman sit at a table together in silence, eating a meal we’ve seen her prepare. He wears work clothes and she wears an apron; they seem to be from an earlier moment in history, their home rural and isolated.
Suddenly, he stiffens and his body folds at the waist, his weight falling on the table. She watches, startled, and then resumes her meal, suffused with a very subtle sense of relief.Then the moment ends and the chariot that’s encapsulated this small moment of two obliquely drawn lives rolls off. Exposition isn’t necessary to communicate the fraught sadness and gladness of the moment, or to debate who exactly has been delivered by the man’s sudden death. We derive what we need to speculate from how the couple looks away from one another, from how they cut their food, from how they hold their bodies at the table, from how they chew. The text lies in their actions, in the daily movements of everyday life that speak volumes.
If the emotional detail of Les Éphémères comes from a combination of heightened theatricality and very subtle, task-based actions, the chariots on which these stories play out provide their own momentum. The actors moving the wheeled circular platforms push and pull them through the alley-like space, so that the spectators’ perspective changes continually. The characters move as their places are pulled around the stage; the effect is of lives always in motion, whether or not they’re going anywhere.
A long, narrow, two-sided viewing situation that could be frustrating for spectators instead becomes an exhilarating experience of multiple views of the same scene, as the playing areas roll this way and that, on and off, toward and away from each other, as doors join rooms, as living rooms give way to bedrooms and bathrooms and then move back to front doors.
The cumulative effect suggests the continuity of these lives, a fluid, always changing connection between those small, sliced platforms, rather than the static isolation proscenium arches often frame. The production exemplifies Brecht’s materialist view of history, of the present as a moment in a string of time that can affect the future in unpredictable ways, just by looking at the same scene from a different angle.
At the end of Part I, as if to underline the operation of memory and to jog your own, the actors parade the chariots with sets we’ve seen so far in Les Éphémères across the stage, as if to remind us of the lives that have played out before us for the last three hours.
The spoken text does justice to the texture and loveliness of the production’s visuals. Little conflict propels each vignette. Often, a phone will ring that delivers news or information that informs the scene’s emotional tone, sets its narrative in motion, or punctuates its action. And the musical score (by Jean-Jacques Lemetre) that accompanies the play underscores its emotional ambiance with poignant sounds and effects. Lemetre’s music apparently inspired the play’s initial construction and continues to inform its performances.
Throughout the play, he sits on a platform above one end of the playing area, watching the action below. He plays a series of unusual-looking instruments—an angular cello and various stringed instruments that look, to my untrained eye, like modifications of the more typical configurations, somewhat like those in Laurie Anderson’s repertoire. An assistant clad in black hands him various instruments as he needs them, while he sits watching the action and adjusting the sound effects. He hovers above the stage, his presence quiet, benevolent, and motivating.
Les Éphémères’ stories begin with a scene called “The Marvelous Garden” (all the scenes are titled in the program), which concerns Jeanne Clément (Delphine Cottu), who’s grieving her mother’s recent death and putting the woman’s effects in order so that she can sell her house. When a man whose wife has just had a baby sees her freshly placed “For Sale” sign hanging on the gate, he enters the house and immediately decides to buy it. The juxtaposition of her sorrow with his joy sets up the play’s emotional fluctuations, as well as how subtly modulated those extremes will appear.
The play’s pieces come together in surprising ways that reveal themselves only gradually over the seven-hour production. In several sweet scenes, for instance, a divorced woman playfully entertains her young daughter with costumes and masks, their pleasure only interrupted by regular calls from a man who we come to realize is the girl’s father. When the father finally enters their home, coming to collect the girl in a scene called “Every Other Saturday,” it’s suddenly clear that the irritating man on the phone in these scenes has been the joyous new father from the play’s opening.
This example of how Les Éphémères moves through time in unexpected but moving ways is repeated in other stories throughout the play. At the beginning of Part II, Jeanne visits an archive with a letter she’s found in her mother’s effects, and learns that her mother’s parents were deported from Paris to a concentration camp during the Holocaust. Jeanne, who didn’t even know her mother was born Jewish, is stunned to learn her history, which subsequent scenes describe in stories that subtly interlock. Jeanne sees her mother’s history pass in front of her eyes, as more circular platforms roll on to encapsulate her secret history. The cast enacts moments of courage and cruelty that cross time, from one woman’s refusal to hide her Jewish friends during the Nazi occupation, to Nora’s fearlessness in the face of a mortal threat.
The connections among characters in the present and the past appear like images developing in liquid in a darkroom. The script never points underlines them obviously. Sometimes, a name hints at a common thread. The doctor/radiologist in one story shares a surname with Nora, the heroine of the World War II drama that grounds Jeanne’s family history.
That one actor—the sublime Juliana Carneiro da Cunha—plays both Dr. Altunian da Silva in the present and Nora Altunian in the past emphasizes these connections across time and across emotional coordinates. The exact relationship between the doctor and Nora is never spelled out. But the connection itself matters most, and the kindness and altruism that informs both characters’ choices.
Dr. Altunian plays out her story in several scenes with Perle (Shaghayegh Beheshti), an ancient, addled woman who arrives for an ultrasound in filthy clothing, her teeth blackened from neglect, with a dirty white cloth flower pinned in her matted gray hair. Dr. Altunian has been warned about Perle’s eccentricities; the woman is difficult, querulous, opinionated, and strong. That Perle comes to trust the doctor, and that Dr. Altunian comes to grow fond of the old woman, tracks one of the play’s most moving trajectories.
Beheshti is marvelous as the curious Perle. The actor is probably in her 30s; the woman she plays is easily on the far side of 80. She twists her body to portray Perle’s arthritic limbs, her fingers wracked with pain, her back bowed, her stomach pained by something she mistakenly believes to be pregnancy, her eyes twitching with suspicion and later, mischief, her mouth opening and closing spasmodically over decayed teeth. Age make-up is obviously drawn on Beheshti’s face—gray lines are penciled over pancake make-up with no attempt to make the effect look realistic.
But knowing that a young actor plays Perle makes her portrayal that much more affecting, since what you observe in the performance is the actor’s love and respect for the character’s humanity, rather than the virtuosity of Beheshti’s acting (although it is that). What could be a caricature instead becomes an eloquently choreographed dance of the indignities of age, the sharpness of character, and the persistent need for human connection as time passes and the body betrays its frailties. Da Cunha’s and Beheshti’s scenes together are lovely, heartbreaking instances of warmth and compassion.
The actors all play multiple roles, especially the principals—da Cunha, Cottu, Serge Nicolai (who plays Alain, the happy then angry father), and Duccio Bellugi-Vannuccini (who plays various key supporting roles). They transform themselves with obvious, fake-looking wigs, make-up, and costumes, but mostly by embodying the physical characteristics of people whose lives are particularized by their circumstances, by what they do, in the present, more than how they got there and what it means.
The effects of each character linger, so that when the same actor embodies each part, you can see the violence of the wife-beater reappear in the upper-class father and the dying sharecropper. The actors become their own inter-texts, layering proximity and touching intimacy simply by relating the last character they played and to the present one. Each person stamps his or her role with an indelible trace of something very real, something recognizable and true even without the back-stories of exposition.
I saw Les Éphémères on one of the Saturdays in its run (7/18/09) when you could see Part I at the matinee and Part II in the evening. The pleasure of consuming the play in one delicious gulp was enhanced that day by other spectators, who happened to include Anne Bogart, Tony Kushner, Wally Shawn, and Suzan-Lori Parks. But even those among us who weren’t theatre luminaries became important to one another. I spoke with the man sitting next to me in Part I and the woman beside me in Part II differently than I typically talk to my fellow spectators.We talked about what we were seeing and what we saw, and how it made us feel.
The long play was a feat of endurance, however pleasurable (and the seating was, frankly, uncomfortable), that also made us turn to one another for support and a kind of care we don’t usually need from strangers. Eating the cookies the cast served and drinking the water we could pour together from the long table the cast rolled out at intermission also brought us that much closer; no one (or perhaps fewer people) ran out to smoke or check their cell phones. The audience walked down to the stage to collect our refreshments, and hung around talking instead of dispersing.
But something else circulated among us that day, something I like to call a “utopian performative,” when the fact of an audience’s being together creates a current of what anthropologist Victor Turner called communitas, or belonging among strangers, that lets us feel elevated together. In those heightened moments, I think we get a sense of what utopia might feel like. Watching Les Éphémères, I felt lucky to be among this particular group of people, those I knew and especially those I didn’t, watching a play that reminded me of theatre’s magic and the affecting beauty of experiencing it with an audience who feels it, too.
The Feminist Spectator