MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

The Coming-Soon-Park: Philippe Quesne at On the Boards

What a delightful way to launch the new season: over the weekend, On the Boards presented La mélancolie des dragons, a visual-theatrical tone poem by the Paris-based theater artist Philippe Quesne featuring his Vivarium Studio.

I’d only read about Quesnes before, having missed his previous appearance at On the Boards over four years ago in L’Effet de Serge. Once you’ve experienced his work live, en personne, it’s even more obvious that, like music, it really can’t be captured by the proxy of words.

The mise en scène initially signals that a hyper-realistic play is perhaps about to unfold: a run-down VW Rabbit sits stranded on the stage, as if exhausted from hauling a mysterious trailer. The wintry landscape is framed by snow-covered trees that are part-Chekhov, part-Stephen King: as the audience visibly shivers settling into their seats, you half wonder whether some menacing interloper would come stalking through the treeline.

But it all turns out to be the setup for a gracefully quirky homage to the evocative power of theater. The “realistic” stage picture opens up a world of surprising invention whose only unifying story line riffs on the magical connection between performer and audience.

Audience in this case enters into the picture in the figure of Isabelle, the far-from-menacing interloper who happens upon the stranded Rabbit and its inhabitants and offers to help. Though apparently a chance encounter, she is greeted warmly by a band of seven men on the road touring their “show.”

Before that comes a lengthy preludial section: the lights come up on four of these guys sitting in the car (all sporting metal-style, shoulder-length hair), sharing a bag of chips, drinking cans of Rainier beer, and rocking out to an ADD-driven setlist of AC/DC and The Scorpions.

No words, just a silent theater of gestures and movement accompanied by music. In fact, though the VW’s in dismal shape (Isabelle pokes beneath the hood, liberating alarming puffs of smoke), the sound system carries on unperturbed. Music is an integral component of Quesne’s vivarium, and later in Mélancolie the soundtrack makes way for some very apt Haydn.

Once all the characters have been revealed, spoken dialogue is introduced. We learn that these men have been peddling their nameless show: a sort of mobile, minimalist amusement park on wheels. “Really?” exclaims Isabelle in wonder. “Can you show me?”

Which is of course both Mélancolie‘s theme and process: the show-me part of theater that makes us sit up and eagerly watch, casting aside the drive for interpretation — whether that means fitting it all into a coherent plot or getting to the bottom of some putative motivation. Image is message in the world of Quesne.


Or rather, images and their enjoyment. Isabelle, and we, are treated to a parade of sometimes silly, sometimes buoyant “acts”: dancing wigs, a machine that blows bubbles, a tub of water made to spew in a “geyser,” enormous pillow-like balloons that are gathered into an installation, like a zany, tripped-out Stonehenge.

Isabelle’s reactions, and the reactions of her entertainers to her reactions, are just as fun to watch as what’s being displayed. At the climax, the varied attractions are mixed together into a lighter-than-air Gesamtkunstwerk.

Amid all the frothiness, Quesne does weave in some clever metatheatrical commentary, poking gentle fun at that logocentric need to make it all make sense.

When Isabelle is being introduced to the “installation” of books, Quesne humorously harps on an anthology of writings on melancholy and a children’s book about dragons. Aha! So that’s what it’s about!

“We are…autonome!” declared one of the entertainers, lauding their DIY inventiveness but also suggesting the best attitude for watching the show.

There’s also some delicious banter about texts versus images, and Antonin Artaud gets name checked, as if to seal the piece with experimental-theater cred. All very sweetly tongue in cheek.

Quesne’s theater artistry is rooted in his work as a visual designer for opera, theater, even exhibitions. He also likes to compare his sensibility to that of an entomologist. (He began studying insects as a hobby when he was a kid.)

But while much of the amusement of this show emerges from observing the naive, childlike wonder of Isabelle and the showmen, Quesne steers clear of any tone of mockery or superciliousness. It’s a subtle balancing act: and therein lies Mélancolie‘s real magic.

–(C)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: On the Boards, review, theater


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