Chekhov Without Cherries, Naughty Parisian Lady: Paris Theater
The autumn theater season offers Parisians a visually striking, emotionally empty “Cherry Orchard” and the rediscovery of a half-forgotten gem, Henry Becque’s delightfully cynical “La Parisienne.”
A glimpse into the program at the Theatre de l’Odeon warns you what to expect: “The Cherry Orchard,” says director Julie Brochen, “is not a play that should be pinned to a historical context. Neither the sets nor the costumes should suggest a particular period.”
So, instead of Chekhov’s Russian estate, set designer Julie Terrazzoni comes up with a huge metal cage, a few pieces of furniture and a concert grand. The costumes (Manon Gignoux) seem to come from a vintage store specializing in the 1920s.
The cherry orchard is nowhere to be seen.
The only Slavic element is Russian choruses. There’s a lot of music in this production. Four musicians roam the stage, adding an interlude here and there, sometimes accompanying the spoken text, as in a melodrama.
Jeanne Balibar’s Madame Ranevskaya, the spendthrift lady who has left her French lover in Act I and is on her way back to him in Act IV, has an exquisite profile and looks splendid in elegant evening gowns. She also plays the piano and sings.
At the end, when the cherry orchard has been sold and the house is being closed up, she has a hysterical fit, yet soon gets over it.
The thing that’s missing is humanity -- Chekhov’s unique mix of comedy and melancholy. Brochen treats her actors like marionettes: They sit in picturesque tableaux vivants, strike decorative poses on the revolving stage and leave us cold.
“The Cherry Orchard” is at the Theatre de l’Odeon through Oct. 24. Information: http://www.theatre-odeon.eu or +33-1-4485- 4040.
Clotilde, the heroine of “La Parisienne,” also ditches her lover only to be reconciled with him at the end.
The amazing thing about this “comedie rosse,” or bitter comedy, is that it had its premiere in 1885, only six years after Ibsen’s Nora Helmer shocked the world by leaving her husband and her “doll’s house.” Clotilde du Mesnil (Barbara Schulz) is emancipated to a point that, even in our permissive society, most men would find difficult to accept.
The play starts with a scene of jealousy: A gentleman who we assume is Monsieur du Mesnil insists on reading a letter Clotilde has just received. Only at the end of that scene, when she warns him: “Watch out! My husband!” do we realize that she’s quarreling with her lover.
Lover of Month
Monsieur Lafont (Jerome Kircher) is Clotilde’s lover-of-the month. Yet she is tired of his jealousy and on the prowl for a replacement. She finds it in young Simpson (Alexandre Guanse), whose influential mother she’s cultivating to promote the career of her husband (Didier Brice).
After a couple of months, the young man leaves Paris, and Lafont comes back into favor. To what extent the cuckolded husband is aware of the menage a trois isn’t clear. Still, he gets his promotion.
Mercifully, Didier Long, the director, Jean-Michel Adam and Renato Bianchi, the set and costume designer, have resisted the temptation to update the play and make it more “relevant” to a modern audience. They have treated it as what it is -- a period piece of the Belle Epoque, a naughty comedy of manners as light as a souffle.
Nor do the actors fall into the trap of hamming it up and going for easy laughs. They deliver their lines without affectation, with perfect timing and nimble wit.
“La Parisienne” is at the Theatre Montparnasse, 31 Rue de la Gaite. Information: http://www.theatremontparnasse.com or +33-1-4322-7774.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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