Ariane Mnouchkine/Théâtre de Soleil’s Les Éphémères, which closed this last Sunday, July 19th, is one of those productions that elicits from New Yorkers periodic European theater awe. Much of it is from the mise-en-scène, the overall set-up of the working space on and offstage, contained inside the hulking Park Avenue Armory, co-presenters with Lincoln Center Festival. And then there is its seven-hour total length, split into two shows.
Every detail conspired: from the ushers and greeters, who seem so more polite than the usual. The cast’s dressing area—with communal make-up tables and racks of costumes lit by golden incandescent light, revealed by parted, striped tent curtains. The atmospheric music that summons up things that have nothing to do with real life. The company’s shipping crates, warmed by votive candles, even enchant.
Tiers of high-backed, moss green benches boast embedded pin lights like gemstones, and are lettered ornately. The seating more resembles a parliament house than the status quo theater. The audience members, framed by the structure, are implicated and drawn in as ad hoc witnesses to the performance; the minute you sit down, you’re no longer on the outside. The composer/musician Jean-Jacques Lemêtre is situated in a box hovering above the stage, playing a variety of instruments and presiding over the action like the wizard he resembles. At intermission, carts bear cookies and beverages distributed by old and young company members.
The stage itself, designed by Everest Canto de Monstserrat, is a bulging runway capped by two billowing silk curtains. The show’s scenes mostly take place on circular rafts (or “chariots”) pushed stealthily by agile cast members in street clothes; each has a particular technique for pushing and rotating, which takes on its own distracting poetry. The discs are filled—sometimes to overflowing excess—with the detritus of the slice of life being depicted. An archive office, a hospital room, children’s quarters, a beach, a tavern—it’s amazing how much is packed onto these slight wafers that float on and off like dream (or nightmare) sequences. A series of doors, run between and through, implies an apartment building or a hospital. Bullfighting and bike riding lessons take place on the stage itself.
Storylines flow in and out, with generations at times mind-bendingly occupying the same stage. A woman tries to learn more about her grandparents and in the process, unravels dark wartime secrets; a house sees generations come and go; a doctor (the amazing, versatile Juliana Carneiro da Cunha) becomes attached to a demented elderly patient (in a frighteningly detailed performance by Shaghayegh Beheshti). The actors portray several different characters and take their bows in street clothes, having magically slipped completely out of their roles.
The recurrent theme—the ephemeral nature of memory, of life—elicits both sadness and the resolve to appreciate the gifts one receives. A real-life thunderstorm was the one rude interruption by the present moment in the dreamscape of Les Éphémères. And yet even that seemed rigged—the storm’s drenching, retreating violence left cleansed, glistening streets and electrically charged air. Or perhaps the show simply did its job.
Photo: Galatea Kraghede Bellugi and Juliana Carneiro da Cunha. Photographer: Stephanie Berger