Ariane Mnouchkine has spectacle, and exile, in her DNA. Her father, the Russian-born French film magnate Alexandre Mnouchkine, produced Jean Cocteau’s Les parents terribles, Philippe de Broca’s Cartouche, Alain Resnais’ Stavisky, Bertrand Blier’s Get Out Your Handkerchiefs and Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Name of the Rose, among others.
And if you’re of an age to remember the summer of 1984, when Los Angeles hosted the remarkable Olympics Arts Festival, his daughter’s name will rank high in the memory: Festival organizer (and, at the time CalArts chief) Bob Fitzpatrick arranged for Ariane Mnouchkine’s Paris-based Théâtre du Soleil to make its U.S. debut with her Asia-suffused productions of Twelfth Night, Henry IV, Part 1 and Richard II. The presentational disciplines embraced Japanese Kabuki and Noh, Indian Kathakali, and not incidentally, Italian commedia dell’arte, while the politics range from Moliere to Dario Fo. The Shakespeares were of such cinematic scale that they filled studio sound stages.
Mnouchkine’s company comprises theater artists from across Europe and Asia and its work emerges through a communal process. The latest is A Room In India, which opened this week and is running through December 20 at New York’s most spectacle-friendly performance venue, the Park Avenue Armory. The huge space, a former military drill hall, demands a cinematic vision rarely seen in the theater since Billy Rose filled the Hippodrome with elephants and Jimmy Durante in Rodgers and Hart’s Jumbo.
We are seated stadium style, facing a wide-open room in Pondicherry, where a French theater troupe has settled in for a stop on tour. Fans hang from the billowing roof and circle lazily above a main living area with an office at stage right and bedroom at stage left, where we see a woman, Cornélia (Hélène Cinque) asleep until the phone rings in the office. The company director is calling to say that a terrorist attack has left him feeling powerless and useless, and has quit. It’s up to poor, unqualified Cornélia to come up with a new show. In the series of dreams that follow, Cornélia is visited by traditional Indian artists, Taliban inquisitors, a pair of rambunctious monkeys, William Shakespeare, King Lear and daughter Cordelia, Anton Chekhov and a white cow as she anguishes over creating meaningful art in a world ravaged by violence and – also not coincidentally – patriarchy.
These fevered scenes, semi-coloned by a ringing telephone (a favorite Mnouchkine device) that takes us back to the original frantic call, are performed with mesmeric detail – in performance, musical accompaniment and technical accomplishment. So much so that we may be seduced into overlooking the sophistication of the enterprise, so fully are we drawn into Cornélia’s mind as she tangles with the conflicting creative demands that have obsessed artists of every era. Oddly, the long first act flies by swiftly while the second, shorter act, has its longueurs, and the bitter irony of the ending, specifically quoting Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator, may be lost on some. That seems, in retrospect, like nitpicking, as Mnouchkine and her astonishing troupe continue to make theater of unsettling immediacy and resonant power.
The wife-and-husband team of Abigail and Shaun Bengson first spotted one another across the crowded room of a punk hootenanny and married three weeks later, displacing one projected roommate (Shaun’s best friend) and launching both a personal and professional musical partnership. One result is the exceptionally entertaining, not to mention deeply moving, Hundred Days, which was co-written with Sarah Gancher, which has opened at the New York Theatre Workshop.
An earlier version was seen at last year’s Under the Radar festival (reviewed here), and it’s gotten sharper and better in the year since. Hundred Days is their story of merging lives and artistic yearnings, along with the strong dose of abject fear that comes when all-consuming young love meets a dire medical prognosis that may or may not have come in a dream (what can you say about a twentysomething spouse who died, or might have, or didn’t die at all?). Accompanied by four equally personable and talented musicians (Colette Alexander, Jo Lampert, Dani Markham and Reggie D. White) on a stage seemingly lit by Edison bulbs and astutely directed by Anne Kauffman, the show takes just 90 fleet minutes to sink its teeth into your heart. It’s funny and charming and dead serious without ever being deadly.
The auspicious New Group, on the other hand, is presenting Seth Zvi Rosenfeld’s Downtown Race Riot, though for the life of me I don’t know why. It’s set in the kind of apartment that only exists in plays about marginal folks who seem to have stumbled upon spacious but crumbling digs and decorated it mostly with Indian print bedspreads. Riot concerns a smacked-out mother (Chloë Sevigny) and her son and daughter, the former a lesbian except when she’s not; the latter a tough pretty boy who hangs with a group of mini-gangsters.
The hoods are planning a riot in Washington Square Park to rid the area of rising blacks, gays and rich Jews (who can, I suppose, be differentiated from the non-rich Jews given dispensation). I can’t recall another play in which every actor appeared to dread the words about to emerge from his or her mouth, and I can’t say I blame them. The performances under Scott Elliott’s uncharacteristically enervating direction are as halting as the writing is stilted. The New Group is in residence at the Pershing Square Signature Center. Better work lies ahead.