January 24, 2018

2 French Playwrights Reclaim Their Works, Bringing Them Home

2 French Playwrights Reclaim Their Works, Bringing Them Home

Inside, over drinks, food and, in a predictable but effective scene, in a restroom, Josiane Stoléru gives a subtly dynamic performance as the forgetful Yvonne. While ostensibly there to provide comic relief, she distills some of the most potent lines (and silences). The lanky Micha Lescot, one of the most distinctive French actors of his generation, is Yvonne’s weary son, Eric; only Camille Japy, as Françoise, is a notch less believable than her colleagues.

While Ms. Reza glosses over some questionable transitions to keep the five characters together, the overall construction of “Bella Figura” is textbook in its simplicity. Ms. Reza has long been one of the most popular living French playwrights on the world stage, with two Tonys and two Laurence Olivier Awards to her name (for “Art” and “God of Carnage”), but her work’s reception has been oddly skewed in her native country, which maintains a rigid distinction between publicly and privately funded theater. Public venues tend to favor experimental, highbrow fare, while private fare is generally considered crowd-pleasing and somewhat lacking in intellectual value — often a fatal flaw in France.

Ms. Reza, who first rose to prominence in the 1980s, has mostly been perceived as a “private” playwright, in part because of her straightforward subject matter and narratives. (The Théâtre du Rond-Point, where “Bella Figura” is being performed, receives public funding, but its programming regularly straddles the divide.)


Elmer Bäck and Marina Hands in “Actrice,” written and directed by Pascal Rambert, at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris.

Jean-Louis Fernandez

One false assumption is that Ms. Reza’s work matters less for that reason. Actually, its intricate fabric relies on what happens between the lines, on the depths of resentment and petty feelings underneath the social veneer. “Bella Figura” is not a major work by her standards, but the craft that went into it serves the story and the actors. International producers will most likely seize on the opportunity.

Mr. Rambert belongs to the same generation of playwrights, but his style could hardly be more different. As “Actrice” (“Actress”) demonstrates at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord (through Dec. 30), it is as verbose as Ms. Reza’s is understated. His favorite rhetorical device is the anaphora, the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses, and there are too many to count in “Actrice,” a play billed as a tribute to female actors that falters under its own ambitions.

Mr. Rambert wrote “Actrice” in 2015 for the Moscow Art Theater, whose current director, Oleg Tabakov, invited Mr. Rambert to stage his successful play “Clôture de l’Amour” (“Love’s End”) for the troupe five years ago. According to Mr. Rambert, “Actrice” was inspired by the Moscow theater’s actors — all the characters have Russian names — but because of budget constraints, it has yet to be performed in Moscow.

Instead, it made its debut in French at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, where Mr. Rambert was appointed associate artist in January. This once-abandoned Parisian stage was given new life in 1974 by the British director Peter Brook, who declined to renovate it to preserve its intimate, threadbare allure. Mr. Rambert’s stage design for “Actrice” complements it beautifully: Dozens of bouquets cover almost the entire stage, surrounding a single hospital bed.

Eugenia, the actress referred to in the title, is dying, and the flowers serve both as gestures acknowledging that fact and as a reminder of the bouquets she earned in her career. Her parents keep vigil by her bed, and a host of characters from her past take turns visiting, from stage colleagues to her estranged sister, Ksenia, who moved to Montenegro and became a businesswoman.

“Actrice” may not have been written for the two women playing Eugenia and Ksenia in this French production, but it is an ode to them. Marina Hands, a former member of the Comédie-Française troupe who has gone on to a successful film career, is new to Mr. Rambert’s work, but she provides a wistful center of gravity for the play while many around her struggle to handle her terminal diagnosis.

Even Ms. Hands faces an uphill struggle when trying to make Mr. Rambert’s lines sound natural, however. The only actor who manages it consistently is the playwright and director’s longtime muse, Audrey Bonnet, in the role of Ksenia. Slim and pale, with sunken eyes that project a searching intensity, Ms. Bonnet previously starred in Mr. Rambert’s “Clôture de l’Amour” (2011) and “Répétition” (2014). She navigates the text with a virtuoso, staccato delivery that lends Mr. Rambert’s words a sharp edge.

The men fare less well: The husbands of both sisters overegg their Russian accents, with Jakob Öhrman, as the boisterous Pavel, left to utter inanities including, “The truth is in my alcoholism.”

The text is intensely descriptive throughout, as Mr. Rambert artificially spells out details that weigh down his sentences. There are vacuous pronouncements about art and death, and exchanges that flirt with nationalism and religious preachiness. “Why are you so cruel, life?” Ms. Bonnet cries plaintively over and over at the end.

The line is so unsubtle that it grates; in French, a language not given to stating the obvious, Mr. Rambert’s wordiness remains an acquired taste.

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