- Les Éphémères
Circular and rectangular platforms drifted onto the oblong stage between two banks of steeply raked, high-backed benches supporting an overflow crowd observing itself across the stage. The platforms were arrested and later removed, pushed by actors and stagehands pitched so low to the floor they would have seemed to levitate were it not for their choreographed, oddly long gaits that propelled the platforms to and from their resting places. These were the hyper-detailed settings for an extended series of intimate encounters comprising the latest creation from Théâtre du Soleil, Les Éphémères, directed by Ariane Mnouchkine and created, performed, and assembled by a team of over forty, including more than ten children.
The children seemed to be the heroes of the performance I attended, in which the company presented both parts of the piece together for more than six hours of performance, separated by breaks in which all members of the company, including the children, helped serve food and drink to those in attendance (free cookies and water at pauses during parts 1 and 2, available paid meals before the performance and between the two parts). The transparent, communal labor of the company, grand themes and extensive run-time, and the incredible dedication of the performers are all hallmarks of Théâtre du Soleil’s work over the past forty years. And yet in matters of scale, style, and content, Les Éphémères was unlike anything it had ever done and marks a serious and profound departure for the company.
Over the course of its celebrated history, Théâtre du Soleil has addressed grand themes through the interpretation of classic texts using techniques imported from Asia and the Middle East, and through explicitly and explosively political epics developed from extensive research. Here, it posed intimate questions of love, loyalty, responsibility, and chance by staging, with jaw-dropping detail, the small moments that comprise the lives and
histories of contemporary people living in France. The audience members witnessed, via thirteen narratives recounted episodically, tiny exchanges, life-altering accidents, and the quotidian friction of life across fluid boundaries of class, ethnicity, and gender. Throughout, the company played with and against conventions of melodramatic storytelling, setting up familiar scenarios and playing them out until clichéd knowledge exhausted itself and small revelations appeared.
A transsexual delicately arranged her living room for a birthday we were meant to imagine will be spent alone. A call turned out to be a wrong number. Just as the smell of the archetypal lonely outcast became overwhelming, a gang of children arrived outside her door, full of malicious curiosity. When Sandra (Jeremy James) opened it, one child remained and entered the apartment. Once inside, her amiable and frank interview was interrupted when Sandra’s mother calls to wish her happy birthday, and we learned that Sandra is alone because she only recently moved to town. The accumulation of gestures and small talk eroded feelings of pity and fear associated with an easily accepted stereotype.
An extended family returned home from a fair with exhausted children in their arms, struggling to navigate a crowded kitchen on the way to the children’s bunk beds; the parents, who are too exhausted to do more than deposit their children fully clothed into bed, remove only their shoes. A child on the top bunk held in her little fist a clear plastic bag with a live fish in it, presumably won during the day’s activities. As the adults plop themselves into chairs and slowly wonder at their day, none of them has noted the bag hanging perilously over the edge of the bed. The endless worry of a working parent, the mounting responsibilities of a child, the simple grace of each small success—all of this seemed captured by that swaying bag and its fragile cargo.
The extraordinary scenographic detail brought to the ordinary rooms and locations on the platforms and the unhurried rhythm of the scenes was less a matter of “realism,” and more a means to...