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Serial Killer, Saint, Suicidal Nympho Head to Avignon: Preview

"Blood and Roses" by Tom Lanoye, directed by Guy Cassiers, at the Festival d'Avignon from July 22 to 26. Photographer: Koen Broos/Festival d'Avignon via Bloomberg

July 6 (Bloomberg) -- They were comrades-in-arms, and they both ended at the stake: Joan of Arc was condemned to death for witchcraft and blasphemy, Gilles de Rais for the serial murder of children.

Joan and Gilles are the heroes of “Blood and Roses,” a Flemish play by Tom Lanoye that questions the power of the Church right in the lion’s den -- the courtyard of the Papal Palace in Avignon where the popes resided from 1309 to 1376.

“Blood and Roses” is one of more than 30 productions in the official program at the Festival d’Avignon, the second-biggest theater gathering after Edinburgh, that opens today.

Film star Juliette Binoche plays another lady whose life ends prematurely, August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie.” A second version (in German), concocted by the U.K. director Katie Mitchell and the video artist Leo Warner, “Kristin, After Miss Julie,” changes the perspective: Strindberg’s drama about a suicidal nymphomaniac is seen through the eyes of a minor character, Kristin the cook.

“The Suicide” is a satirical variation on the same theme. The 1928 farce by Soviet playwright Nikolai Erdman drew Stalin’s ire: The author was banished from Moscow, and the play had to wait until 1990, 20 years after his death, before it could be staged in Russia. This is the French premiere.

Erdman’s Soviet society is quite different from the rosy image presented in the official propaganda: When Semyon, an unemployed young man, threatens to kill himself, his family and friends, instead of talking him out of his plan, egg him on in the hope of profiting from his death. In the end, he only gets dead drunk.

Polish Hero

Three years ago, Arthur Nauzyciel directed the festival’s hit, “Ordet” (The Word), a religious drama by the Danish vicar Kaj Munk who was shot by the Nazis.

For this year’s festival, Nauzyciel, who lost members of his family in the Holocaust, has adapted “Jan Karski,” a novel by Yannick Haenel about the Polish diplomat who informed the Western Allies about the Warsaw Ghetto and the extermination camps yet met with disbelief.

The biggest name among the directors is Patrice Chereau. His production, “I Am the Wind,” a two-hander by the Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse, has been performed already in London and Paris. U.K. critics were bewildered by the enigmatic relationship between “The One” and “The Other,” as the two men on stage are called, and dismissed the play as pseudo-Beckettian balderdash. In Paris, where Fosse is held in high esteem, it was praised as a profound masterpiece.

The most intriguing production promises to be “Enfant” by Boris Charmatz, the festival’s Associate Artist, who has made his name as a choreographer of “non-dance.” He brings together 27 children and nine dancers and, in the program, invites the spectators “to become children again.”

The only contribution from the U.S. comes from the Nature Theater of Oklahoma, an Off-Off-Broadway performance group. It presents two episodes from “Life and Times,” a marathon musical based on telephone conversations with a 34-year-old Jane Sixpack who describes her childhood and puberty.

The Avignon Festival runs through July 26. Information: http://www.festival-avignon.com or +33-4-9027-6650.

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

-Editors: Jim Ruane, Catherine Hickley.

To contact the writer on the story: Jorg von Uthmann in Paris at uthmann@wanadoo.fr.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.

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