Wehle's World
by Philippa Wehle

The Avignon International Festival for the Performing Arts,
July 5 - 27, 2002
Il Silenzio, by Pippo Delbono's Company, July 11, 2002
Maurice Maeterlinck's Les Aveugles, director Denis Marleau,Ubu, July 15, 2002

Avignon, a medieval walled city in south-eastern France was once more the place for theater lovers to be this summer thanks to its international festival for the performing arts which celebrated its 56th year in July.

A vast and informal gathering, unique in the mix of audience and variety of its productions, the festival has always been a place of discovery and conviviality. This year's festival was no exception. It featured at least forty productions from Poland, Germany, France, Canada, and other countries. With every cloister, chapel and medieval courtyard in use, and the Honor Court theater in the Pope's Palace refurbished to hold 1,970 spectators comfortably, theater was everywhere and everywhere people were talking about what they had seen or were about to see, which included of course the shows in the unofficial or fringe festival as well. With its seven hundred companies filling every available space in Avignon from holes in the walls to cafes and street corners, the Off Off festival was larger than ever.

From Italian Pippo Delbono's trilogy on War, Rage and Silence to the Polish production of Festen, by director Grzegorz Jarzyna and Heiner Muller's Medee Materiau, directed by Russian director Anatoli Vassiliev, the festival offered an exciting panoply of theater and dance. There was no question but that "Avignon," as it is affectionately called, remains a major testing ground for the new and the controversial in theater from around the world.

The work of Pippo Delbono, a charismatic director/actor from Italy, whose magnetic presence on the stage draws you in immediately, was an important discovery not only for myself but for many others. His is a theater that seeks to bridge life and art, to create a natural theater. He is much aided in this by an extraordinary group of non-professional players, people he encountered in asylums or on the streets in his travels and tours over the past few years. Bobo, a deaf mute who had spent forty five years of his life in an asylum until he met Pippo; Gianluca, a Mongoloid child whose delight in playing is contagious, Nelson, a homeless man Pippo found sleeping on the streets of Naples and Fadel, a young refugee from the Sahara, Pippo himself and a host of other fascinating performers make up this unusual company that offered three pieces, Il Silenzio, La Rabbia, andGuerra during the festival.

Il Silenzio was my favorite of the three. It was presented in a school courtyard, outside the walls of Avignon, where giant plane trees swayed in the powerful Mistral wind, creating a challenge to all, and adding a special natural element to this particular piece which was inspired by the 1968 earthquake that destroyed the entire village of Gibellina in Sicily.

As the play began, out of the dark came Pippo Delbono, an affable looking fellow in his forties, whose suit never quite fits him right and whose appearance is rather disheleved. He carries with him sheets of paper from which he reads passages from authors he favors, excerpts from songs, poems, and quotes from the likes of Passolini, Rimbaud and Beethoven. He reads these in French with a rather thick Italian accent, beginning with the tragic tale of the earthquake that destroyed Gibellina. "All that was left was a shroud with which a sculptor covered the stones." Soon, the clatter of drums banging and thunderous roaring surrounds us with the horrendous sounds that must have preceded the devastating earthquake. It is deafening. Musicians appear and play Pink Floyd's "Shine on me, crazy diamond." This is followed by a ritual raking of the sand which covers the playing area, performed by three men, quietly, calmly. It is the silence after the storm.

Thus began a captivating evening, composed of a collage of scenes, dance numbers, music, gesture, personal memories and texts read with passion by Pippo throughout the piece. One minute a performer is placing a wooden cross on a grave, the next an old-fashioned wedding party enters, forming a circle and dancing together. Holding hands, they turn faster and faster until they run off the stage. Gianluca joins a young man kicking a soccer ball. They too hold hands and run about together while the cellist plays and Pippo recites: "the silence of words, the silence of the dead, the silence of the living, the silence of stones, of tears,..." and so on.

Soon Bobo appears, an enchanting little guy, wearing a red and green straw hat. He sits down at a table, with a checkered tablecloth. A waitress, played by a beautiful young woman, serves him. He smokes. That is all, but the moment is magical. Bobo's silent presence is enough to bewitch us all. "The silence of Bobo, the silence of the deaf," says Pippo, seated at another table behind him, about to read us another text, this one from Beethoven about his own deafness.

In another scene, the entire company in evening gowns and tuxedos, sits behind a long banquet table. A cardinal and a Mussolini look alike complete this tableau of the Italian ruling class in the 1930s. Bobo plays an official, wearing a red, white and green sash. He gets up to make a speech but can only produce unintelligible sounds; a perfect metaphor for the incomprehensible content of so many public speeches. They all raise their glasses in a toast.

Later Bobo becomes a boxer, forced, it seems, by three shady looking men to fight a giant of an opponent. Bobo accepts the challenge and, needless to say, wins the match cheered on by the audience that applauds his triumph over his powerful adversary.

The final scene, an extravaganza with marching band, majorettes, and a Madonna, played by a strikingly tall performer on stilts, is a joyous grand procession with all players present. The beautiful actress who played the waitress in the previous scene, is now a sort of Colombina, in red and white with her cheeks painted red. She dances a frenetic dance, laughing while exclaiming "We are all dying." Exhausted, she sits with her head in her hands. Bobo comes over carrying a blue elephant with white polka dots. He wears a clown's nose and his cheeks are painted red like the young girl's. He undoes her hair, hops around her and comforts her with his kisses. As the others execute a mad dance, figures from a Fellini film, our eyes stay on Bobo and the pretty lady as they dance briefly together before leaving the playing area. Walking slowly, hand and hand, along a path lit with little lights, they disappear into the night, leaving the audience stunned by the beauty of this moment, and the slow realization that something exceptional has just taken place.

Equally exciting was Quebecois Denis Marleau's production of Maeterlinck's Les Aveugles [The Blind People], A Technological Phantasmagoria, "performed" entirely by virtual actors in a pitch black chapel in the Lycee St. Joseph.

Fumbling in the dark to find seats, relieved to recognize the contours of a bench, the audience is at first unaware of twelve faces, glowing with a strange light in front of us, hanging there in the dark. Soon, these suspended heads begin to talk. We learn that all of them are blind, lost in a forest, far from the home where they live. Their guide has disappeared, leaving them stranded in the dark. Perhaps he has gone to get groceries, surely he will be back. They call out. He does not answer. Cold and hungry, they long for his return. What they don't know, however, is that he is dead and lying right there at their feet. Their anguish increases as they hear strange sounds and sense that someone might be there but they don't know whether it is friend or foe. Perhaps it is someone who will guide them out of their terrible predicament but the play ends and we will never know if they were saved or not. Lost, alone, waiting for salvation, these twelve disembodied souls are every bit the precursors of Didi andGogo; their plight strikingly similar to Beckett's vision of the fragility of the human condition.

Director Denis Marleau's decision to use contemporary technology to interpret this 1890 play was a felicitous choice indeed. What better way to create the feeling that these blind people have no hope of finding their own way in the dark than to light up only their anguished faces? And these faces are the faces of well known Canadian actors Paul Savoie and Celine Bonnier. The six blind men wear the face of Paul Savoie and the six blind women the face of Celine Bonnier. Yet mysteriously each has a somewhat different look and each has a different voice.

In order to achieve this fascinating effect, mask makers Claude Rodrigue and Pierre Laniel sculpted blank heads from the faces of the two performers. Then Marleau filmed the actors playing each one of the roles. These videos were then projected onto the masks. The final effect of luminous talking heads is haunting and the entire forty-five minutes of the play, unforgettable. [Wehle]

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