Friday, July 10, 2009

Les Éphémères


By Le Théâtre du Soeil. Directed by Ariane Mnouchkine. Park Avenue Armory. (CLOSED)

Only Bloomberg News's John Simon, ever the contrarian, was not swept up by the ephemeral pleasures of Les Éphémères, a series of 29 vignettes. (The two three hour plus parts can be seen as a marathon or individually.) Critics even find that the scenes that drag only add to the realistic feel of the evening. As Charles Isherwood writes in his glowing review for The New York Times, "Nobody would argue that boredom is not a significant — perhaps even a necessary — ingredient in human experience." Critics, including John Simon, like the rotating platforms on which the scenes take place. Though critics like the intimacy of the venue, they warn that the pews are uncomfortable, even with the provided cushions.

The New York Times A+
(Charles Isherwood) The acting is of that sublime but unshowy order generally only achieved by true theatrical collectives, companies of men and women who have worked together for years. (And in the case of Le Théâtre du Soleil, practically lived together.) The precision of the actors’ technique would be awe-inspiring if it were not so casually presented, with almost every performer offering vibrant details that sting with their truth. The cast numbers almost two dozen, not including the (exceptionally skilled) children. It would be easy enough to single out several for praise, and all are exemplary... The musical score by Jean-Jacques Lemêtre is among the finest I’ve yet heard for a theatrical production and is beautifully integrated. It flows under almost every scene and is played with sensitivity by Mr. Lemêtre himself, ensconced on a platform above the stage. (Some of the music comes from recordings.) Mournful and elegiac in scenes of reflection, it turns astringent and chilling, with tensely plucked strings of various instruments, during the more dramatic moments. Of these there are many, although there is no use pretending that Ms. Mnouchkine’s dramaturgy resembles in any way the more narrative-driven model of American theater. Do not expect the frequent fireworks displays of, say, Tracy Letts’s “August: Osage County.” The aim here is not to shape life into taut dramatic form but to present lived experience intimately and without evidence of artists’ interpretation and manipulation. That requires great artistry, naturally, but it is of the traceless kind born of a compassionate feeling for the way people are, not the way they normally appear onstage.

Variety A+
(Marilyn Stasio) The life stories don't always interconnect; but when they do -- often out of the blue and without comment -- the effect can be electrifying. Jeanne Clement (an extraordinarily self-contained perf by Delphine Cottu), the depressed young woman who has to sell the house and the wonderful garden where she grew up, finds a buyer in a man who is ecstatic about the birth of his first child. The emotional contrast between them is striking in itself. When we meet both characters again in part two, the happy father is wild with anger because his ex-wife is failing to honor his visiting rights to his beloved child. But in a bittersweet reversal, the grieving daughter has "found" her mother by tracking down the grandparents she never thought to ask her mother about -- at the same time that her own daughter finds her way back to the wondrous old house and garden. Too many of these connections and reversals would be too schematic, and Mnouchkine is far too strong a theatrical force to sway with that wind. So, many of the vignettes remain just that -- brief moments of everyday life caught in glimpses as they roll by, swept away in the swift and ruthless passing of time. So pretty. So sad. So soon over.

Time Out New York A
(David Cote) Mnouchkine and the actors’ control of tone and atmosphere is simply masterful, while the stagecraft is elemental yet refined: Actors glide in and out of the narrow playing space on small, wheeled platforms that stagehands slowly rotate, creating the theatrical equivalent of 360-degree camera pans. In this sense, Mnouchkine gives the audience an omniscient perspective. But no one plays God here. We can empathize with every character and their complex, all-too-human dilemmas. Warning: Given the long duration and often slow pacing of Les Éphémères—not to mention the charming but hard wooden benches—even Mnouchkine fans may grow restless. The entire work is beautifully crafted, but in truth, not every single moment is equally memorable.

The Daily News A
(Joe Dziemianowicz) From the instant you enter the armory, Mnouchkine envelops you in a theatrical universe, one in which the large, wonderful cast can be seen reading and putting on makeup as you make your way into the theater, whose look is part of the grand design. Walls are draped in red fabric; the seating arrangement recalls both an operating theater, with its bird’s-eye views, and a church, with its wooden pews. Even the intermission, where treats and water are served to the audience onstage, in the communal spirit of Soleil, is special.

Newsday A
(Linda Winer) There is a sublime tenderness in "Les Ephemeres," the extraordinary portraits of ordinary people that Ariane Mnouchkine and Le Theatre du Soleil seem to be living for us at the gorgeous, historic Park Avenue Armory... Each scene is ingeniously set on a rolling dolly, which gets pushed passed us and slowly spun by company members in deep, strenuous but stealthy squats. The result is dreamlike, yet so specific that the events feel more lifelike than realistic theater. Some people overlap, possibly as their younger selves. But each scene is its own short story - meticulously dressed as a kitchen, a living room, a garden - down to real food and just the right booze for its class.

TheaterMania A-
(David Finkle) The thrilling paradox of Ariane Mnouchkine's Lincoln Center Festival 2009 entry, Les Éphémères, now at the Park Avenue Armory, is that it's not like anything you've seen before and yet you've somehow seen it every day of your life. The revered French director has put together a two-part, seven-hour-or-so pageant in which vignette after vignette documents the sort of daily events that no one traditionally marks as sufficiently memorable to be chronicled in a theatrical enterprise; it's as if Mnouchkine had decided to be fabulously mundane by expanding on the third act of Thornton Wilder's Our Town.

Backstage A-
(Mitch Montgomery) The fact that Le Théâtre du Soleil presents the two-part piece in its native tongue (with English supertitles) might scare off everyone save the black-tie, Lincoln Center crowd, but it really shouldn't. Conceiver-director Ariane Mnouchkine's compelling stage pictures and the company's affecting performances make the storytelling quite accessible, except for a few cluttered scenes. In fact, language seems inferior to the frantically spinning set when a woman receives CPR after a car accident; paired with a spinning ambulance siren, the whirling tableau creates a dizzying sense of panic that mere words could not. Also transcendent: the way Shaghayegh Beheshti shakes and fidgets endlessly as the senile Madam Perle, whom we first meet when the poor old woman has confused a gastrointestinal ultrasound with a pregnancy ultrasound. As we track Perle's pitiful dementia through several progressively worse scenarios, Beheshti's fierce, squinting performance comes closest to sublimity of everyone in the large and doggedly committed cast.

Associated Press A-
(Michael Kuchwara) The vignettes are fleeting, and it takes time to build rapport with some of the characters. But a few shine through. One of the most appealing is an American transsexual (Jeremy James) who has found a safe haven in Paris. It's a more hospitable environment than Oklahoma, he tells his mother in a phone call. And the expatriate, now known as Sandra, builds a touching relationship with a solemn little girl. Two of the troupe's most extraordinary actresses — Juliana Carneiro da Cunha and Shaghayegh Beheshti — are paired in two heartfelt sequences involving a doctor and that combative, cranky elderly woman. Their relationship builds slowly and unsentimentally, changing from professional to personal with a naturalness that is astonishing... Yes, "Les Ephemeres" requires a large commitment of time, but the final effect is exhilarating if a little exhausting. But at what other theater event does the cast offer cookies — along with pitchers of water — to the audience at intermission?

New York Post A-
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) What really makes "Les Éphéméres" memorable is Mnouchkine's main staging device. Each of the various sets is neatly positioned on a small mobile platform that's fluidly maneuvered by crouching handlers. These moving Lazy Susans allow the director to constantly alter our perspective. In one vignette, for instance, a solicitous man brings tea to a woman. But as the set slowly rotates, we see bruises on her face, and realize the man likely beat her. Mnouchkine uses these "chariots," as she calls them, brilliantly, introducing flashbacks by going from one to another, and creating a smooth sense of dynamics. Other elements struggle to reach that level of invention, especially in the second half. Jean-Jacques Lemetre's nonstop score can be intrusive and, at times, cheesy. Worse, a few of the multitasking cast members -- notably Delphine Cottu and Juliana Carneiro da Cunha -- are much better in some parts than others.

The Village Voice A-
(Michael Feingold) An undertaking as large as Les Éphémères inevitably has its lapses. Some—not many—of Mnouchkine's scenes exploit the facile tropes of vaudeville sketch and melodrama; some—very few—of her actors overplay coarsely. Rather than weakening the work's overall point, the flaws reaffirm it: Life is imperfect. Naturally, so is Les Éphémères. But to evoke such a vast range of life in seven hours, and to impose it on the audience's imagination with such a degree of effectiveness, requires care, passion, and artistry to an extent that most theaters can barely dream of. Les Éphémères may fatigue you; it demands constant attention. Its sly interconnections, puzzles, and false trails may perplex and frustrate you. But it does what the theater's meant to do: leave you with your sense of life's wonder enhanced.

Bloomberg News D-
(John Simon) The mode of presentation is more interesting than the relatively sparse dialogue, or even the music by Jean-Jacques Lemetre. He performs it himself on a balcony above, playing a variety of odd instruments and accompanied by an assistant on some sort of synthesizer. For garden scenes, Lemetre whistles bird sounds. More often we hear the near-monotonous drone of a cello. There are some major problems. The episodic structure prevents us from getting seriously involved with anyone in this passing and rotating parade. Though performed mostly in French with English surtitles, it can be hard to watch far-flung action along with reading the often fast-changing titles... There are brief scenes in English and Spanish with no translations, and one where a man in a bar sings a Jewish song, and the surtitles are in Hebrew. No less bothersome to me was the unsightliness of most of the adult performers, made more striking by contrast with the appealing youngsters. The setup does not allow most of the actors to develop significant characterizations. The ones who get the best chances, and make good use of them in several parts, are Delphine Cottu and Juliana Carneiro da Cunha, Mnouchkine’s partner. It would be interesting to see them and several others in richer roles.

The New York Times A+ 14; Variety A+ 14; TONY A 13; The Daily News A 13; Newsday A 13; TheaterMania A- 12; Backstage A- 12; Associated Press A- 12; New York Post A- 12; The Village Voice A- 12; Bloomberg News D- 3; TOTAL: 130/11 = 11.82 (A-)

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