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by Lucy Komisar



Zoe Lebreton, Gilles Privat, Coline Serreau in Besson's "The Caucasian Chalk Circle"

Contents: September 17, 2001:
Brecht's "Le Cercle de Craie Caucasien" (The Caucasian Chalk Circle)
Gogol's "L'Inspecteur" (The Inspector)

Molière's "Le Malade imaginaire" (The Imaginary Invalid)
Feydeau's "Un Fil a la Patte"

"Le Cercle de Craie Caucasien" (The Caucasian Chalk Circle)
by Bertolt Brecht, translated by Benno Besson and Genevieve Serreau,
directed by Benno Besson
Produced by Théâtre National de la Colline
15 rue Malte Brun, Paris (Metro Gambetta)01 4462-5252
50 F (7.62 euros) to 160 F (24.40 euros)

Benno Besson's stunning production of Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle turns the actors into real-life puppets with masks and surreal mannerisms that evoke the commedia dell'arte. It is a clownish, cartoonish burlesque that dazzles in its artistry.

Brecht wrote the story in the early 40s in exile from Nazi Germany, first in Scandinavia, then in Hollywood. He meant it to be a political fable about Germany and meant it to go to Broadway. It was finally produced in 1954 at the Berliner Ensemble in East Germany.

It is Soviet Georgia after World War II. Two villages argue over who has rights to a valley, goat herders who defended it or the members of a collective farm who want to irrigate crops. A passing troupe of actors puts on a play that takes place in the previous century. The wife of the Russian governor, fleeing an insurrection, abandons her infant son to the maid. The young woman suffers frequent hardships as she carries the child over rivers and mountains to safety.

The maid, Groucha (Coline Serreau) is a simple earth mother. In June of 1944, Brecht wrote, "All of a sudden I am not satisfied more with Groucha in the CCC. She should be half-witted...a beast of burden. She should be stubborn and non-rebellious, docile and good, persistent and incorruptible,etc."

Appropriate to the symbolism, all move like puppets with rubber faces. The governor (Gilles Privat) is absurdly huge. His wife (Zoé Lebreton), with a red headdress, is grotesquely bizarre. The chorus are clownish rag dolls in
white faces and masks. Often they speak or chant in unison. Sometimes, there's the fantasy feel of a Punch and Judy show.

Events occur over a set made of crude fabric and objects. The bridge is old wood and canvas sheeting; Groucha climbs down its ropes. A river of blue silk ripples as it is flipped by players. A wood bed and a judge's chair are

When the conflict is over and all return, Groucha is not only accused of betrayal by her soldier fiancé, but the governor's wife demands the child back.

The judge orders the boy put inside a circle of chalk and invites the women standing on opposite sides to pull him to them. The argument is that as a child to the one who raises him, the earth belongs to those who cultivate
it. Besson drops the politics along with the argument over the collective farm. One is left with a morality tale and a theatrical tour de force.

"L'Inspecteur" (The Inspector)
by Nikolai Gogol, translated by André Markowicz, directed and interpreted by the Footsbarn Travelling Theatre
A tent at the Jardin des Tuileries, Paris
01 5305 1919 (Athénée Théâtre)
30 (4.57 euros) to 160 F (24.40 euros)
http://footsbarn.com/tour/index.en.html Oct - Jan tour dates and places"
Gogol's "The Inspector" in a style that combines vaudeville and circus, slapstick and buffoonery is an utter comic delight as performed by the Footsbarn Theater in a tent set up in the Tuilerie Gardens.
A scene of "The Inspector", directed and interpreted by the Footsbarn Travelling Theatre. (Photo by Jean Pierre Estournet)

This "popular theater" was started in Cornwall, England in the sixties and now is headquartered in central France where it runs a Center for Theatrical Creation and Education. Its productions tour France and Europe.

Gogol's story is perfect for its mission. It's about a corrupt Russian village that hears a rumor a government inspector is coming to check up on its leading citizens. These shady villagers figure that the only way to deal with him is bribery. A fellow shows up and is taken for "the inspector." Mayhem ensues.

Aptly, events take place to sounds of atonal circus music (by Andzrej Brych and Hanna Brych). Characters sport red clown noses and blow clown whistles. Peasants in masks and dirty rags root at a garbage can and throw snow in a pot over a fire to get water. Above them, four of the town's leaders sit in a common latrine reading a newspaper. One wipes his rear with "Le Monde." An invitation, "Voulez-vous diner avec moi ce soir?" (Want to have dinner with me") is sung to the tune of the pop song "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?"

The townsfolk are absurdly funny. Anna, the mayor's wife, is a man in drag, terrifically played in over-the-top fashion by Paddy Hayter. The feared visitor from St. Petersburg is the West Indian Shaji Karyat Velayudhan, who immediately seizes on the opportunity to get what he can out of his "hosts." Artemi Zemlianika, the charity director, is wittily portrayed by Clémence Massart as a nasal fellow with shoulders hiked up and nervous mouth turned down.

Circus tricks are felicitously employed. Michka (Guillaume Meziat), the valet of the governor, jumps on trampoline and arrives at a second story. Townsfolk are giant puppets who sing in chorus. The band is brassy and Punch-and-Judy. Whistle-blowing clowns are perfect for this tale of dark comedy and bureaucratic duplicity and corruption. The "carriage," a three-wheeled bicycle, neighs as it meanders through the audience to the sound of jazzy traveling music.

The Anglos with bad French accents and occasional English phrases are especially amusing to a French audience. In a dance-march into audience, one character declares, "Mademoiselle est une big ass." There were deserved bravos for the actors.

"Le Malade imaginaire" (The Imaginary Invalid)
by Molière, directed by Claude Stratz
Produced by the Comédie Française
Salle Richelieu, 2 rue de Richelieu, Metro Palais-Royal
01 4458-1500 up to 2 weeks before curtain; 4458-1515 from 2 weeks before curtain.
60 F (9.15 euros) to 190 F (28.97 euros).

Alain Pralon as Argan in "The Imaginary Invalid", directed by Claude Stratz. (Photo by Laurencine Lot)

Claude Stratz's production of "The Imaginary Invalid" starts out as pure fast-paced farce, with lots of racing around and shouting. The center of the action is Argan (Alain Pralon) a self-absorbed aristocrat who spends his days taking potions and medical cures to deal with non-specific ills. It's done as broad slapstick. The maid Toinette (Catherine Sauval) sticks pillows under and around the fellow till finally she smashes one into his face. There's a modern spirit to the play even if it's done in period garments.

The marriage of interest is hardly unknown. In this case, the chintzy Argan orders his daughter Angélique (Julie Sicard) to marry a doctor. She, however, loves Cléante (Eric Ruf) and they plot to derail Argan's plan.

The old man's young second wife, the gold-digger Béline (Catherine Sauval) is scheming to have him will his estate to her. Angélique and Cléante work out a ruse to let Argan know his wife's true feelings. It's all done as low comedy, with eerie fantasy music.

When Argan is persuaded by his brother, Béralde (Alain Lenglet), to become a doctor himself, the procedure occurs with black masks, mystical pageantry and lots of hocus pocus that evoke visions of Mozart's "Magic Flute." It's an elegant production worthy of the theater's historic red and gold chamber.

"Un Fil a la Patte"
by George Feydeau, directed by Georges Lavaudant.
Odéon Théâtre de l'Europe
1 Place Paul-Claudel / Place de l'Odéon, Paris 6 (Metro Odéon)
01 4441-3636
30 F (4.57 euros) to 180 F (27.44 euros).

Comic intrigues, characters that hide in closets and appear at the most inconvenient time, people getting locked in or locked out. And much of it at break-neck speed. That's the stuff of classic farce and one should not forget that the farceur who made it classic was Georges Feydeau.

He wrote "Un Fil à la Patte," literally "a thread on the paw," in 1894 when he was 32. Like, the best of timeless comedies, it's based on people's desires and frailties, which crash against each other.

Star Sylvie Orcier in "Un Fil a la Patte", directed by Georges Lavaudant.

The desires are commonly for love and money. Lucette (Sylvie Orcier), a fashionable singer, loves Bois-d'Enghien (Patrick Pineau). He, however, loves money and decides to marry the well-off Viviane (Agnes Pontier). Except, he can't bring himself to tell Lucette and segues from one disaster to another after his mother-in-law to be arrives to book Lucette to sing at the wedding.

Bouzin, an accountant (Philippe Morier-Genoud) becomes an inadvertent victim when he's foisted off both as Viviane's bridegroom and Lucette's lover by the two-timer. That's because a Spanish general (Gilles Arbona), who's in love with Lucette, wants to kill him. See, it's already confused.

The general, his French a mixture of Spanish and Italian, is a hoot. But for the most part, what should have been alight, airy, and madcap instead fizzles and drags.

The production is not helped by an ugly, contemporary set with a tacky couch, an ultra-modern chaise and accoutrements, and nothing that speaks of fantasy or outrageousness. The costumes, except for the footman in a white wig and 18-century garb, is nondescript. Lucette's sister Marceline (Olga Grumberg) wears an ugly brown suit and Mary Janes.

Lavaudant stages this as a boulevard comedy, the French invention that has the air of TV sitcom. Feydeau deserves better. [Komisar]


Theater critic Lucy Komisar gives pre-show briefings and post-show discussions for theater parties to enrich playgoers' experiences. She'll also help find an appropriate show and make or advise on arrangements. Interested parties may telephone (212) 929-1610 for information.

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