Sunday, June 7, 2009

Performance Report: Feydeau's "Lady from Maxim's"

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Georges Feydeau's 1897 farce masterpiece, La Dame de chez Maxim's (The Lady from Maxim's), at the Odéon National Theatre here in Paris was sold out this week, but that didn't stop your intrepid reporter from splurging a whole 3 euros on a rush ticket for a partial view seat in the 2nd balcony. I'm not qualified to write a full-fledged review here, not having read the play in over 30 years and often finding the three and a half hours of French dialogue, as heard from my seat on the fire escape, going too fast for my ears. (Je le lis mieux que je l'écris; je l'écris mieux que je le parle; je le parle mieux que je l'entends.) However, even I could tell the production kicked ass, with especially strong performances from Nicolas Bouchaud as the husband and Norah Krief as a dancer from the Moulin Rouge.

But why should a physical comedy blog devote space to Feydeau?
• Because he was a master of comedy situation and plot
• Because he used all sorts of gags (see below)
• Because he thought visually and, as I've written elsewhere, wrote reams of stage directions, plotting the physical action of his precision farce machinery down to the most minute detail.

So here are two aspects of the production that I thought worth sharing with you clowns.

A typical Feydeau farce is set in an elegant belle époque Paris residence, with bedrooms and salons and the doors that connect them an essential part of the tightly choreographed action. For this production, the director, Jean-François Sivadier, chose to merely suggest the set. Only the essential furniture is there, and what doors and walls are necessary hang by cable from the rafters and come and go as they please. At certain moments, doors even rotate 90 degrees from their base (as if the hinges were on the bottom). For the party scene, the characters mostly sat on chairs downstage facing the audience.

Here's a video clip from a French television report that will give you a glimpse of the set design:

Look's interesting, eh? And it was kind of refreshing, but I ended up being disappointed by it. One of the big jokes of the play is that Monsieur Petypon wakes up to find a woman who is not his wife in his bed — a Moulin Rouge dancer. As was the style, it's actually all very innocent, but before he can sort things out, his chamber is overrun by friends and family, prompting him to tell a few lies that of course backfire, weaving a web of deceit that cannot be happily unraveled until the last scene, shortly before midnight. Petypon's home is his castle, but his castle is being invaded, so walls and doors matter. Not only could they have done more with this, but what they did do seemed inconsistent; for example, breaking the fourth wall by having characters enter from the audience weakened the power of the other walls, so that this abstract representation of Monsieur Petypon's world never became the force it might have been.


Feydeau loved gags and sure knew how to milk them. In this play, the main gag centers around a chair with magical powers: anyone who sits in it is frozen in place, as is anyone who touches them. Luckily there's a button that unfreezes them, but only Petypon and his best friend know about it. (I had no idea they had such advanced technology back in 1897!) If you think of the gag in physical terms, it's at least a second cousin to your standard Dead and Alive routine.

What's interesting is that, unlike in a variety act, Feydeau has three and a half hours to develop the gag. It first appears fairly early in the play and gets some quick laughs. It doesn't reappear again until the last act, just when we had forgotten about it. Of course you need a reason to repeat it or it would probably prove stale. This Feydeau accomplishes by integrating it into the plot's final farce madness, and by increasing the number of characters frozen (see photo, below). Nicely done!

If you read French and want to check out the reviews, click away:
Le Figaro
Les Trois Coups


Finally, if you're in France reading this, you can catch all of this yourself because it will be broadcast live on the Arte network on Wednesday, June 10th à 20h45. Hey, someone tape this for me!

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