Friday, September 25, 2015

Douglas Messerli | "Elemental Theater" (on Philippe Quesne's La Mélancolie des dragons)


elemental theater
by Douglas Messerli 

Philippe Quesne La Mélancolie des dragons / The performance I saw was on September 23, 2015 at Redcat (Roy and Edna Disney/Calarts Theater) in Los Angeles

As the audience moves to their seats in the production of Philippe Quesne’s play La Mélancolie des dragons, we observe a stage apparently covered with snow, a large white mat of felt on the floor and a series of seemingly dead (or wintry) trees covered with the substance. In the middle of the field sits an automobile attached to which is a small trailer of the kind that reminds one of the traveling performers in the opera Pagliacci, but here arriving in a dead world instead of a vitally excited small colorful Italian city. 
     From time to time we get a notion that there are people in the car, and, as the lights go down, we see there are indeed four individuals in the auto, all with very long tresses, munching on chips and swigging down cans of beer, while the car radio blasts out various heavy-metal, and from time-to-time, even classical pieces, the four nodding their heads in their rhythms.

     At first it is difficult to perceive the sex of these folk, and, at first, appears that two are males and the others of the opposite sex, perhaps a pair of couples on a strange date. If this small car-bound head-banger fest seems to go on a little too long, it is, in part, because we are voyeurs, watching them without invitation, kept on the outside of their world as we are. 
    We soon discover, in fact, that we have been mistaken about their genders, perhaps hinting what Quesne’s play soon reveals: people are not always who or what they appear to be. At that very moment, a middle-aged Asian woman (Isabelle Angotti) bicycles into the glen, the four gradually piling out of the car a bit like circus clowns, revealing that they are all men.

    Three other equally long-haired men soon after exit from the back of the rectangular trailer.. We now might imagine that these are aging band members on their way to a concert, whose mother has just arrived by prearrangement. But, in fact, the woman, in her puffy purple vest, is there to check their car, evidently—given the vast number of engine parts she tosses out into the “snow”—in bad need of repair. As she crawls into the engine to further inspect, followed by a quick telephone call, she reports to this group of strangers that new parts will not be available for another week.
      Were these 7 heavy-metal dudes actually on their way to some gig, the news might have resulted in a great deal grumbling and even teeth-gnashing, but these are apparently very gentle men,who, speaking English with slightly French accents, seem to be as placid and slow-minded as tortoises. 
     When the Asian woman queries them about their trailer, they respond that it is, in fact, a kind of amusement park, and gently invite her to become the onstage audience of their show. Lifting up the felt snowpad, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, they plug in a cord which lights up the trailer to reveal it is fronted by glass, and holds within a selection of wigs all held on rings, as if suggesting the existence a group of like-minded hirsute men. One explains that they also have video projector to project words on the side of the trailer, helping to explain the objects and their actions.

     Another bemusing displays of a small bubble machine, and yet another shows a small fountain that shoots water into the air. One of their group takes out of the car trunk a carton of books and, setting them up within the trailer, creates a small library of everything from monograms on art and pop-up children’s books to works by Antonin Artaud, Freud, Nietzsche, and numerous others great authors, so they tell her, who have influenced their activities—although, given their doltish use of language, it is hard to imagine any of them having actually read these books.
      A bit later, one of their kind displays a small snow-making machine, suggesting that the winter wonderland around them, in fact, has been of their creation. Presenting her with a pair of skies, the men take her through a ski run by lifting up and rolling the felt padding so that she might  pretend to ski down slopes.
      Their small trailer also contains a fan, which they soon put to use by blowing up a large white plastic bag, carrying it ritualistically through the landscape. With lighting and projections, they change the colors of the landscape and suggest possible names for their cabinet of curiosities-amusement park.
       Throughout all of this, the car repair person seems genuinely amazed and absolutely delighted to have been able to immerse herself in their surprising world. Bringing out champagne and glasses, these 8 individuals—who may be, after all, not as simple as they appear—celebrate their success, quickly promising one more grand amusement: shortly after they, one by one, blow up four even larger black plastic bags, uprighting them to look a bit like a black forest of, very possibly, the melancholy dragons of the play’s title, which ends both their entertainment and the “drama” we have been observing—restating what he have recognized all along, that the work’s actions and significance are one in the same.

       The message here, a quite simple one, is that a wondrous and charming theater can be created out of the most simple elements of technology and imagination. As the program notes of Quesne’s Theatre of Vivarium Studio: the author-director’s stagecraft uses “a kind of mechanical research,” is “a technical theatre lab which cleverly modifies the conventions of genre.” 
       If all of this is meant to sound like a radical intellectual redefinition of theater, at least as French critic Sara Sugiharabio would have it, in fact, it is rather too simplistic. While La Mélancolie des dragons presents us with the wondrous childlike roots—the innocent amusements—which are at the heart of all theater, as a play it is not that profound. If this is how theater begins—and it is good to be reminded of that—Quesne’s play eschews all the deeper and richer possibilities of dramatic literature, arguing rather that art is most transformative at its simplest. 
     The wonder of theater, as playwright Mac Wellman has suggested in his early anthology of plays, Theater of Wonders* is that the greatest of its marvels are often arrived at through the most linguistically challenging and thematically complex of issues, some of which are inexplicable. While elemental theater surely reveals the genre’s charms, it may be at its best as a more highly artificed combine.
      La Mélancolie des dragons, however, is significant enough that I look forward to seeing other works by Phillippe Quesne and his Theatre of Vivarium Studio, and joyful that Redcat has brought his work to Los Angeles.

Los Angeles, September 24, 2015

*Mac Wellman Theatre of Wonders: Six Contemporary American Plays (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1985),