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Voir un Ami Pleurer
CATEGORY : DRAMA
by Olivier Coyette

COMPANY : Théâtre du Rêve [WEBSITE]
VENUE : 14th Street Playhouse [WEBSITE]
ID# 3157

SHOWING : September 11, 2008 - September 14, 2008

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PRODUCTION DESCRIPTION

Written specifically for Théâtre du Rêve, this is an epuisodic meditation on Franco-American Relations in the wake of 9/11.


CAST & CREW LIST
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REVIEWS

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Une Once de Prétension
by Dedalus
Saturday, September 20, 2008
3.5
Let me start with a digression. In Robert Harling’s “Steel Magnolias,” a character is quoted as saying “An Ounce of Pretension is worth a Pound of Manure.” A cute line, in and of itself, but, in theatrical terms, it bears an uncomfortable proximity to accuracy. What I mean is, a teensy bit of pretension can overwhelm an otherwise wonderful production.

Now that that’s out of my system, let’s talk about “Voir un Ami Pleurer (To See a Friend Crying)”, the play written by Olivier Coyette for Atlanta’s Francophile troupe, Théâtre du Rêve. This play, original produced last winter, recently had a one-weekend revival prior to its tour to Paris, Buffalo, and Washington DC. Conceived as a post-9/11 meditation on Franco-American relations (and presented on the anniversary of that event), it’s a series of sketches, poems, dances, monologues, and songs, all dealing (often tangentially) with what it means to be American or French.

Thankfully, the play does not take the “Blue Door” approach – that is, it doesn’t arbitrarily assume a “checklist” of characteristics that define either nationality, though, at times, it comes close. Indeed, sometimes the nationalities of its French and English speaking cast are deliberately ambiguous. What it is saying, at heart, is that we all have our prejudices and experiences when dealing with “the other,” but, taken individually, we have more in common (both emotionally and historically) than not. To paraphrase a famous platitude about America and England, the play is saying that America and France are two countries united by different languages.

And, speaking as someone who had to rely completely on the English Translation Supertitles, platitudes and pretense go down a lot easier when spoken in another language.

Last week, I talked to director Valéry Warnotte about the play, and was left with the impression that the piece was structured as three “hypotheses,” an impression confirmed by M. Warnotte’s program notes. These hypotheses, however, seemed to me not unified or concise, but, in fact, mosaic-like, with themes and motifs that overlap and digress. The piece, overall, seemed more unstructured, but more vital than the structured “hypothesis” synopsis led me to believe.

The play starts with Joe Knezevich telling us about why he’s proud to be an American. Indeed, Mr. Knezevich acts as our surrogate throughout the evening, introducing each of the three segments with a monologue, speaking mostly in English. Each monologue leads into a scene. First, an airport encounter exposes (then deconstructs) some rabidly racist attitudes in the two American characters (yes, we hear the French version of the “N” word several times). The scene ends with a moment of violence that is both surprising and effective. In the second segment, Mr. Knezevich’s talk of a toothache leads us into a scene in a dentist’s waiting room, in which a Lesbian couple’s encounter with a conservative mother leads to a moment of violence that is both surprising and effective. In the third segment, Mr. Knezevich’s talk about life and death leads into a dark (literally) scene set in a bomb shelter during the countdown to an un-named apocalypse. The scene, of course, leads to an act of violence totally separate from the holocaust occurring outside the doors that is not surprising, but is nevertheless effective.

Each scene is a short but concise vignette that shows us the extremes of strangers meeting, bonding, fighting, and coming to some sort of resolution based on a recognition of common plight or common humanity. All the scenes work and are entertaining as stand-alone sketches, yet still manage to find a deeper resonance when taken to concert with each other.

What doesn’t work so well for me are the interludes of dance and music and poetry. Too many of them flirt with a self-consciously artsy style that draws attention to itself. At one point, Mr. Knezevich plays a security guard confronting Chris Kayser, who has just given an impressively funny (and dry) talk (in French) on colorectal cancer (don’t ask). Mr. Kayser retains his French persona, but Mr. Knezevich drags him out as if he were an actor named Chris Kayser trespassing at the theatre. Nice and Brechtian, but did we need to hear a character earlier refer to Brecht, a character set up as the last person in the world who would know Brecht?

In similar touch, the Dentist Office scene ends with a soap-operish melodramatic flourish that added nothing to the scene, but only served to draw attention to itself. Still again, after a talk about theatre and acting and “Truth,” the cast writes “Truth” in great big letters across the back of the stage (just in case we didn’t “get it”). To me, the word “Truth” has taken on so much relativistic political baggage quite separate from its core meaning that the moment practically destroys itself. In this case, Truth is decidedly artifice, and, though this may have been the intended affect, it fell flat as a dramatic device.

On the other hand, I found myself listening to the poetry segments rather than reading the translation. The words (as translated) came across as somewhat sophomoric and English-Class banal, but the music of the language was a delight, carrying an emotional aura totally undercut by the dry translation.

Another interlude that worked for me was when the cast, as themselves, described their first encounters with Paris and with French culture. This was a nicely realized moment that acknowledged individuals, individual reactions and reservations, and specific moments in time that struck me as unpretentious and, if you’ll forgive me, truthful. And, Ariel de Man’s choice of telling a joke involving an American, a Frenchman, and a Belgian was a delightfully different approach.

On the technical side, while I did like the pitch black Armageddon scene (with two thin strips of light the only illumination), I was somewhat less moved by the fluorescent strip lights shining into our eyes. They seemed to carry little (or no) practical value, and, if they were meant to “shine a light” on the audience, it was too obvious and too irritating. A rolling flat-sized red gel occasionally moving in front of the lights was also ineffective for me. But, the Supertitles were clear and (for the most part) in synch with the actors, the video interludes were nicely done, and the bare-bones set quickly shifted from set-up to set-up.

The cast was, as expected, excelled in every moment. In addition to Mr. Kayser, Ms. de Man, and Mr. Knezevich, we also saw Carolyn Cook and Park Krausen, all up to their higher-than-the-bar best. All portrayed a variety of characters and got opportunities to show us how their talent transcends language. They also got to sing a song from an American Musical (that shall go unnamed because it’s not credited in the program and may invoke copyright issues). Unfortunately, I know the show it’s from too well, and the song carries some baggage that was at cross-purposes to its use here.

I also very much liked the ending, a video sequence (over the Jacques Brel song that gives the play its title) that intercuts faces, French and American, happy and sad, with images of post-9/11 Ground Zero. It’s an affirmation of the bonds that tie our countries together, a reminder that we may squabble and snarl like any siblings or friends, but, when one of us is in trouble, if one of us cries, the other will always be there.

Of course, I’m not sure if ending a theatrical even with a video is the right choice, but it’s still pretty darn effective.

And, if platitudes and pretension go down better in a foreign tongue (even if puns are lost), let me close by what one of M. Harling’s characters says in his Magnolias en Acier, “Une once de prétension vaut livre d'engrais.”

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)
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