Lehman’s Demise, Baryshnikov’s Satanic Laugh in Paris

Stefano Massini’s “Chapters of a Fall: The Saga of Lehman Brothers” isn’t a play in the traditional sense.

It’s more like the Iliad or the Nibelungenlied -- a heroic epic in free verse with a tragic ending.

The story, at the Theatre du Rond Point in Paris, is told by six actors, all male. The start point is 1844 with the arrival of Henry Lehman, son of a Bavarian cattle merchant in Montgomery, Alabama, where he opens a dry-goods store.

It ends three acts and four hours later in 2008 with a reunion of the deceased patriarchs mourning the demise of their venerable investment bank.

In between, we’re witnessing the expansion of the business to raw cotton, coffee and cigars, the move to New York City and the shift from a house of commodities to the underwriter of some of the biggest projects in U.S. history such as department stores, railroads, television, the oil and armaments industry.

In the hands of Bertolt Brecht, the metamorphosis from a traditional into a virtual, less and less controllable business would have been the stuff of an anti-capitalist Lehrstuck, or didactic play. Massini is more subtle.

He certainly has no sympathy for speculators or the philosophy he ascribes to “Bobbie,” the last of the patriarchs: “Our goal is a planet on which the consumer follows his instincts, not his needs. Or, if you will, his search for an identity. At that moment, gentlemen, banks will be immortal.”

Human Side

Yet Massini also shows us the family’s human side -- its piety, art collecting, marriages and divorces. Herbert Lehman, who left the family business to become governor of New York State and a fervent advocate of social security, unemployment insurance and public regulation as a senator, is playing a prominent part.

When I read the basically undramatic text, I wondered how it could be brought to life without becoming a kind of educational television show. Arnaud Meunier, the director, has solved the problem by turning it into a fast-paced, often hilarious revue.

With a minimum of props and video images as backdrop, he and his troupe from St. Etienne in southern France have proven that the rise and fall of a company can make for a highly entertaining evening.

Rating: ****.

Willem Dafoe

At the Theatre de la Ville, Robert Wilson has mounted another revue with two trump cards, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Willem Dafoe.

“The Old Woman,” which was first staged in July at the Manchester International Festival, is based on a surrealist short story by the Russian writer Daniel Harms, or Daniil Kharms, who died in 1942 in a lunatic asylum.

In the short story, the woman first appears carrying a clock without arms. She then comes to the apartment of the narrator where she dies. He hides her body in a suitcase that gets stolen in a train while he’s using the toilet.

He is desperate: “Who will believe me now that I didn’t kill her?”

There is no old woman on the stage of the Theatre de la Ville. Baryshnikov and Dafoe, two whiteface clowns dressed in black, play all the characters.

They move like robots, repeating the same gestures and words again and again, Baryshnikov alternating between English and Russian. They sit on a swing waiting, like Samuel Beckett’s metaphysical bums, for something to happen. And from time to time, they burst into satanic laughter.

It’s a perfectly timed, and fortunately not too long (90 minutes) double act, a kind of absurd commedia dell’arte set in Wilson’s well known universe of highly stylized props, abrupt lighting changes and exotic noises.

Rating: ****.

“The Old Woman” is only the first part of a Wilson festival in Paris.

Starting this month, the Louvre will allow us a glimpse into his archives. In December, Wilson’s production of “Peter Pan” at the Berliner Schaubuhne will come to Paris, followed in January by a revival of his old war horse, “Einstein on the Beach.”

“Chapitres de la Chute: Saga des Lehman Brothers” runs through Nov. 30, “The Old Woman” through Nov. 23 Information: http://www.theatredurondpoint.fr and http://www.theatredelaville-pais.com.

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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