Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Performance Report: Aurélia's Oratorio at the Berkeley Rep

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In the beginning (1889) there was Charlie Chaplin. And then it came to pass that 54 years later Chaplin took as his fourth wife 18-year-old Oona O'Neill, against the wishes of her father, playwright Eugene O'Neill. Despite the age difference they lived happily ever after and gave birth to eight children, the fourth being Victoria (born 1951). Like mother, like daughter: Victoria Chaplin eloped at a tender age with French actor Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée, and together they created their own lyrical blend of circus and visual theatre under such titles as Le Cirque Bonjour, Le Cirque Imaginaire, and Le Cirque Invisible. Victoria and Jean-Baptiste have two children, Aurélia Thiérrée (born 1971) and James Thiérrée (born 1974), both of whom performed in their parents' productions and have gone on to star in their own. On January 8, 2010, I took the BART to Berkeley to see Aurélia Thiérrée star in Aurélia's Oratorio, a theatre piece directed by her mother, Victoria Chaplin, thus completing the cycle started in 1889. (Huh?)

This is only the third piece staged by the Chaplin-Thiérrée clan that I've seen, but they have all amazed me with their visual inventiveness and sheer creativity. Most reviewers describe their work as, well, indescribable, but I'll make a stab at it.

Their shows use both the name and the vocabulary of the circus, but are in many ways rooted in the theatre, making clever use of its proscenium, its sight lines, its stage lighting tricks, its magic illusions. Their world is that of everyday objects — especially furniture and clothing — which are transformed in their hands into actual performing partners. The finely tuned physical comedy imagination at play here often yields stunning results, aided in no small part by the lithe and well trained bodies of Thiérrée and her co-star, dancer Jaime Martinez. There are few applause cues. Instead you feel like you are floating through a Dali-esque dreamscape or the world of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland .

While references to surrealism are obvious and probably apt, in a radio interview Thiérrée traced the show's origins back to the middle ages: "It was a picture book called The World Upside Down, and there were drawings that were very popular in those days, they were sold on the street. These were sometimes political and sometimes purely comical drawings, where they would invert the situation so instead of a man being on a horse it would be a man carrying the horse. Instead of a man going to war it would be a woman going to war. So this was the starting point."

Here are two of 29 images from that book, and you can download the whole book for free here. [NOTE: The English text hardly seems from the middle ages, though I suppose the plates could be. The printing date is given as 1820, though perhaps it's a reprint edition with modernized verse.]

The 70-minute, no-intermission, dialogue-free show is comprised of dozens of set pieces accompanied by pre-recorded music. Thiérrée opens the evening by emerging from a chest of drawers (see video below), ignoring a phone caller who seems desperate to reach her. The curtain drapes come alive, as though windswept into assuming different shapes and transporting her into a sort of parallel universe, complete with a bunraku-style puppet theater. She and Martinez play with self and identity as they don and share a wide variety of garments with the dexterity of quick-change artists, but with a better eye for transformation and comic moments. The inanimate world is constantly coming alive before our eyes and merging with the live action, so it comes as no surprise when our heroine becomes part of the puppet show.

What can I say? You have to see it for yourself. And though I would definitely pay to go again, I do have some not-so-minor quibbles. The physical comedy brilliance is unfortunately not matched by any deeper sense of theatre. The characters, such as they are, have pretty much a neutral presence throughout, and the relationship between them is vague at best. I am not expecting narrative structure or naturalistic characters in a piece like this, but I still think the results would be far richer if we felt that the characters were more invested in the situation, no matter how absurdist that situation may be.

The show runs the risk of feeling like a series of bits with not enough holding them together, so that when they're not being brilliant boredom can set in. It is as if they are on the verge of saying something, but can't quite go there. I was reminded of the brilliant Garden of Earthly Delights (photo, right) choreographed by Martha Clarke (a Pilobolus founding member), another visual piece with roots in medieval iconography, but one held together with a stronger vision. Of course Ms. Clarke had Bosch to draw upon! (Hieronymus, not Home Appliances.)

All in all, this is still amazing work that should be seen, and seen live. There's not much in the way of good video available, but even if there were, it would be no substitute.

Here's the official 2-minute trailer for their show, which I include in the interests of being thorough, but which I'm afraid does a pretty poor job of representing the show's strengths:

And here's the opening chest-of-drawers sequence.

A promo for Au Revoir Parapluie, a show by Aurélia's brother James;

Click here for an interesting enough radio interview with Aurélia Thiérrée
Click here for a 1986 New York Times review of Le Cirque Imaginaire.
Click here for a New Yorker profile of Aurélia's brother James.

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