Saturday, November 16, 2013

Playtime in Paris II

My recent trip to Paris lasted seven weeks.  Which gave me time to see four plays of various genres.  Here’s a short resumé.

Ionesco Suite

I already talked about this play earlier this year (Playtime in Paris, Feb 26) so why go see it again, you ask?  Well, because it’s performed by friends who came and did Rhinocéros at the University of Michigan.  One of that cast, Gérald, offers me a ticket and the Théâtre de la Ville - Abbesses is right down the street, so yes, I’d love to and thank you very kindly.
  As I said in February, this “play” is actually a mélange of five Ionesco works.  The troupe has been together for almost a decade, and they’ve studied all of Ionesco.  One day director Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota asked his actors to choose a text that spoke to them and work on it.  Then those texts were structured and woven together to turn the spotlight on explosive social situations such as weddings, family reunions, and birthdays.  All this with minimal sets, multiple costumes, heavy make-up and a stage as close to theater-in-the-round as possible.  The result is hilariously absurd... which is something Ionesco would approve of.
  After the play, I wait outside to thank Gérald.  We end up with more of the cast and crew at a nearby café.  (It is France, after all.)  I tell them I remember the play having seven actors and there were only six; they answer that one is on tour with another play so they reworked the script.  Then I admit I don’t remember the bit with the cake dropping on the floor, and was that an “oops”; they reveal that it’s a new bit they worked in lately.  I’m relieved I’m not losing my memory and tell them how wonderful I find it that they can keep it fresh.  “We’ve been together a long time,” comes the reply, with a smile.

Hier Est un Autre Jour

Out of the blue, friends call and say they’re passing through Paris.  And would I like to go to see a play with them?  So we meet for dinner near the theater and then on to the Bouffes Parisiennes for a romp that borders on the slapstick at moments but is well-acted and executed like clockwork... until the star gets so taken up with his role that he cracks up himself... and that rebounds on his co-star.  It takes them a good minute or two to pull themselves together, but as we’re all laughing too, it doesn’t matter.   The star role is played by Daniel Russo, who has done plenty of stage and screen but I don’t recognize him when he walks on-stage to the audience’s applause.  Then he opens his mouth and I recognize the voice that dubs Harvey Keitel, Danny DeVito, Bob Hoskins and John Travolta in France.
  The plot is simple.  A lawyer is about to close the deal of his career and get a promotion.  Caught up in the moment, he inadvertently runs a will through the shredder and from that point on strange things start to happen... and a strange little man appears at his office door.  Somewhat like Groundhog Day, people start saying the same thing, doing the same thing, again and again.  It gets crazier and crazier until it’s almost too slapstick for my tastes.  Still, it’s a well-oiled machine - except for the fou rire laughing episode - and a good time is had by one and all, both in the audience and on stage.

La Générale Pompidou

The same friend who turned me on to the Vallotton exhibit (see Oct. 26) has suggested we go see this play, whose subtitle is “... or the True Made-up History of the First Ladies of France”.  It opens with Anne-Aymone, wife of President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, having to pack up her things and leave the Elysée Palace, the French White House, before her successor arrives.  Come to help her is the First Lady she once replaced, Claude Pompidou, accompanied by a friend who turns out to be Bernadette, the wife of Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac... who we will see later on when she in turn becomes First Lady.  In between the two, Danielle Mitterrand, with her leftist activism.  And the sparks fly.
  The cast includes two other characters.  There’s the long-suffering maid, Linotte/Soizic, who has to cater to the whims and differing temperaments of all these First Ladies, and has the most diverse role in the play.  There’s also a person I’ll call Mr. Interlocutor, who pops out from behind the curtains to sing songs as the sets are being changed backstage and to introduce the next scene with "Et pendant ce temps-là... au palais " (Meanwhile, back at the palace...).  He’s really very funny and has a talent for seguing from talk into song so subtly that you don’t notice it at first.   Plus he has an amazingly flexible face that molds into many different expressions.
This isn’t a play for people who aren’t familiar with the past French governments because that’s its whole point.  But if you are, this one’s for you, at the small Théâtre des Béliers near the City Hall of the 18th arrondissement.

Nos Femmes

Even though it manages to get its barbs in concerning modern French society, this last play is similar to the second in that it’s théâtre de boulevard, even if it’s not running on the boulevard.  All that the term means is “light fare”, as opposed to drama.  Its sole purpose is to entertain, and that it does.  In spades.
  Although the play has just opened, the Théâtre de Paris is packed.  That’s because it unites two bêtes de la scène, two lions of the stage:  Richard Berry and Daniel Auteuil, along with Didier Flamand.  Daniel Auteuil is best known in America for films based on Marcel Pagnol’s novels:   Jean de Florette, Manon des sources, La fille du puisatier and the trilogy Marius / Fanny / César - all with the sing-song accent of Mediterranean France (which Auteuil doesn’t have here).  Richard Berry is less well-known across the Atlantic, but for years was part of Molière’s bequeathal to the French, the Comédie Française.  You may have seen him in movies like The Violin Player or Day of Atonement.  (And I’ve seen him in the neighborhood because he lives here in Montmartre.)
  Both Berry and Auteuil were born in 1950.  Both started their acting career in the early 70s.  Both worked their way up to the top of the line-up as triple-hitters:  stage, screen and TV.  Both have worked not only in front of the camera but also behind it, as director and as screenwriter.  But they have rarely co-starred in films and never before on stage.  This comedy was written specifically for them to star in together.  And Berry is the director.  So it’s a real event.  And the theater’s full.
Left to right:  Berry, Flamand & Auteuil
The plot?  Three old friends with very different personalities get together every week to play poker and talk about the women in their lives.  And the conversation isn’t always flattering.  On this particular night, Paul and Max are waiting for Simon, who is never late.  When he appears, he’s been drinking and announces that... he’s strangled his wife!  Simon then passes out and the next hour and a half is pretty much a frenzied discussion between Paul and Max of whether to turn him in or lie for him.  The verdict goes back and forth with Berry and Auteuil playing it to the hilt (and losing it twice in the flurry, but picking it up again with a quip).  I think the highlight was Berry’s version of break-dancing, and his ensuing hobbled walk across stage, although Auteuil’s explosive character steals the scene at other moments.  It’s very physical comedy and by the time the play’s over both have sweat soaking through their respective shirts and the audience is in stitches.
A standing ovation for a job well done.  These are craftsmen with a sense of timing and nuance that knows no equal.

For a peek at the third of these plays:

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