Thursday, June 2, 2016

Cracked: Christoph Marthaler’s Une île flottante at Montreal's FTA

Christoph Marthaler’s Une île flottante opened Montreal's Festival TransAmériques on May 26. (Photo: Simon Hallström)

There’s a moment in Christoph Marthaler’s absurdist bilingual play, Une île flottante, when you wonder what came first, the chicken or the egg? The question is relevant as a way of understanding the power behind a comedic tour de force whose German title, Das Weiss vom Ei, translates as egg white, the food that binds other ingredients together. But before exploring that conundrum, let’s first establish that there are no chickens in the two-hour-plus play, presented with surtitles, that opened the ongoing avant-garde Festival TransAmériques in Montreal last Thursday.

But there are plenty of stuffed birds, among other taxidermy creatures, whose continuous presence in this wildly buffoonish send-up of the bourgeoisie underscores the deadening, essentially meaningless, existence of contemporary life. As for the egg, it is hidden in Une île flottante, the name of a delectable dessert consisting of an island of a meringue floating in a pool of sugared egg yolk. This allusion to a frothy nothing, an imaginative dish conjured from much whisking and careful balancing of solids and liquids, is an apt metaphor for the play which the Swiss-born Marthaler whipped together, using a variety of theatrical sources.

A prolific director and writer of contemporary European theatre and opera who admits to getting ideas from the home kitchen where he loves to cook, Marthaler chose as his starting point Eugène Labiche, the celebrated 19th-century comic writer of French farce whose original scripts, La Poudre aux yeux, about two families trying to impress each other, and L’Affaire de la rue Lourcine, another comedy exploring vanity and ambition, he pillaged as primary source material. Une île flottante, first staged in Europe in 2013, departs from Labiche by being a post-modern pastiche of various cultural elements, from slapstick comedy of the type Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton in made famous in silent movies to musical parodies of sweetly harmonizing choral song and the Petula Clark hit, "Downtown," as performed by his tight-knit ensemble of crackerjack comedians.

Marthaler also inserts into his theatrical smorgasbord a dollop of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense verse, "Jabberwocky," in one of the play’s rare instances of spoken English. The literary surrealism is augmented by a deadpan delivery given by Graham Valentine, the actor performing all the domestics. Elsewhere, dialogue in both French and German languages is mechanical, repetitive, fragmented and reduced at times to hiccuping sound. Marthaler’s retarding of language has a soporific effect, as if the whole bourgeois affair seen on stage were a lurid dream, envisioned by a band of lunatics. Certainly, any connection to reality is thin.

Carina Braunschmidt as Emmeline in Une île flottante. (Photo: Simon Hallström)

This is theatre as pure artifice, itself a comment on the lack of authenticity in contemporary life. The characters are cartoonish with exaggerated physical traits and alarming facial tics enlivened by the punch-drunk antics of vaudeville, including prat falls on a dropped banana peel. Marthaler’s masterful handling of physical comedy stems from his early training at the legendary Jacques Lecoq clown school in Paris. Buffoonery infiltrates everything, including the central story concerning the coming together of two families, one snootily French, the other working-class German, to discuss the impending marriage of their respective grown children, Emmeline and Frédéric. She is a piano student and he is her teacher.

Emmeline’s starchy mother, played by the marvellously drole Charlotte Clamens, exhorts Emmeline to show off her expensive lessons to her future in-laws, Monsieur and Madame Ratinois, played respectively by Ueli Jäggi and Nikola Weisse. The barked request is for “roulades” to be performed on the piano. Except here the keyboard is actually a harp, and the performance is make-believe, silently mimed by the eye-popping Emmeline using branch-like fingers which claw grotesquely at the air. Nothing, in other words, is at it seems.

Marthaler was a musician before he turned to the theatre and he fills some of his pregnant silences with music for rhythmic texture. Music blasts out of the record player that Emmeline powers up to dance rag-doll like to James Last-like “light” pop music, and from a radio whose too short electrical cord prompts her physician-father to perform a contortionist choreography all his own. Marc Bodnar, a long-time Marthaler actor, here plays the role of the grimacing, snoring and farting paterfamilias, Monsieur Malingear, turning out a performance as virtuosic as it is hilarious.

The radio debacle turns into an extended burlesque during which the good doctor loses his pants as he tries to wiggle his oversized body from the inside of a chair whose seat has barrelled him round the middle. Bodnar’s attempts to extricate himself are hilarious even as they humiliate the man down to his underwear. This richly mimed moment of physical comedy is among the hallmarks of a play in which the human body appears as dehumanized vessels freighted with irony.

At a panel discussion held at the Festival TransAmériques’ L'Université du Québec à Montréal headquarters on Friday evening, critics and other intellectuals from Montreal’s theatre community floated the idea that Marthaler has deliberately presented the body as distorted and broken, stripped of dignity and anything resembling a soul. His clownish characters, it was further argued, occupy a post-Samuel Beckett world where their stiffened bodies, mirroring the stuffed animals in their midst, represent the human condition in state of rigor mortis, desensitized and destined to rot. There’s plenty of evidence to support that.

Charlotte Clamens, Marc Bodnar, Nikola Weisse et Ueli Jäggi in Une île flottante. (Photo: Simon Hallström)

The sense that the play is about the living dead, sleepwalking through a mannered existence, shows Marthaler wryly portraying his European society as stagnant, incapable of progressing beyond the kitsch displayed in its over-decorated living rooms. For him it is an unnatural way of being, as suggested by his play’s line up of physical wrecks. Raphael Clamer, the actor playing Frédéric, for instance, walks inflexibly, with one shoulder perpetually cocked to his ear, making him look like not unlike one of the scary zombies seen in a Scooby-Doo cartoon. Meanwhile, Carina Braunschmidt, the actress playing his love interest, the ghoulish Emmeline, is forever sucking in her cheeks to produce an overbite through which she speaks in sibilant tones, like a snake. One of the other actresses barely speaks at all, except at dusk when she feels strangely invigorated, a characteristic shared with vampires. You could call them all bloodless, except they bleed, spontaneously so and often in unison. Collectively they stuff tissue up their bleeding noses while sitting at a dining room table, vainly trying to stop the life force from draining out of them.

Anna Viebrock’s overstuffed set design, consisting of walls hung with realistic portraits capturing the emotionally flatness of the characters on stage, is littered with figurines and other decorative objects that, like the paintings, mirror the plasticity of the play. The set is not merely decor, but an integral component of the work’s meaning. At the end, when the actors suddenly drop out of character, a transition signalled by a visual relaxing of muscle tension that for two hours had threatened to deform them, they quickly dismantle the set, piece by piece, stripping the stage bare. It’s an abrupt ending, especially so when the lights are turned out, and it returns us to our original question: Chicken or egg?

Labiche is the originating source of this work; Marthaler, inspired by him, has followed up, more than 150 years later, with a production that revitalizes the conventions of farce, presenting them anew to contemporary audiences fed on a diet of multisensory distraction. His fervid imagination has laid a golden egg. How nourishing it is to the spirit is up to interpretation. By tearing down the artifice before our eyes, Marthaler is unsentimental in making it clear that he is peddling in illusion. He offers no words of wisdom. His vision is a mirror. if you can see yourself in it, then draw your own conclusions about a world made of eggshells.

  Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.   

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