October is an opportune time to travel to Paris without the crowds and the heat of summer. I was honored to have the occasion to visit the La Cartoucherie theater complex in the 12th arrondissement of Paris.
La Cartoucherie (“the munitions factory”) is in the Bois de Vincennes, an incredibly lovely and vast park which includes four lakes, a boathouse, a Buddhist temple, two islands, a zoo, an arboretum and other venues.
Within the grounds is a theater complex of five buildings. Marie-Noëlle Boyer, the efficient, brilliant administrator of Théâtre de la Tempête (“Storm Theater”), reminded me that there are four drama theaters that comprise what all Parisians know to be La Cartoucherie. They are Théâtre du Soleil, (Theater of the Sun), Théâtre de la Tempête (Theater of the Storm), Théâtre de L’Aquarium (Theater of the Aquarium), Théâtre de L’Épée de Bois (Theater of the Wooden Sword), and L’Atelier de Paris / Carlyn Calson (Workshop Paris by Carlyn Carlson), which is essentially a dance theater. Each theater has a different mission, style, and focus.
The Storm Theater is under the direction of an amazing theater innovator, also a director, professor and writer, Philippe Adrien. Philippe Adrien is renowned in professional theater circles and amongst theaterphiles, Parisians and French theater-goers. Vaguely familiar with Adrien’s work when he innovated an avant garde theater work, Kafka’s Dream, that toured in the States and around the world, I was looking forward to understanding how his directing craft had developed over the years. I was not disappointed when I saw the production of La Grande Nouvelle (The Big News), which is based on Molière’s work, The Imaginary Invalid.
Adrien directed the production and worked on the update, collaborating with actor and writer Jean Louis Bauer. Throughout, La Grande Nouvelle was vital, edgy and unique. For die-hard Molière fans, it may have stretched the master a bit, but that is what I found illuminating and profound. Adrien’s and Bauer’s collaboration presented a Molière with clarity and humor. This production escalated Molière’s themes about our fear of dying, our obsession with always appearing and being youthful, and our real-time avoidance of the inevitability of our own morality. In an outrageous way, this work twitted our assumptions about our own humanity and laid bare the silliness of human vanities.
Off the top the play was a hysterical and very droll portrayal of Molière’s hypochondriac “invalid” Argan (Patrick Paroux). Argan fusses, fumes and attempts diabolical treatments as he tries to mitigate his “ills.” He even notes his future illnesses through the latest biotechnological readouts of his medical workup. His condition becomes a ridiculous preoccupation and stultifies his ability to appreciate and enjoy his life, as he becomes an observer of himself.
As the play develops we realize that Argan is so obsessed with health and youthfulness he will stop at nothing, even the ridiculous, to maintain it. He is especially frenetic about staying vigorous so he can enjoy his voluptuous second wife. The irony is that the main focus of his life, to the exclusion of everyone else, is himself. To say Argan is galactically self-absorbed is an understatement.
Adrien’s and Bauer’s update is extremely current. Adrien’s direction is slick with digital/visual backdrops, music, and sleights-of-hand, and the staging contributes to the play’s humorous tone. The more Argan attempts to discover the latest medical advances and argues with his doctor, his psychiatrist, his family and others and incurs increasing costs, the more he faces irresolution, and the harder he searches, up through a heightened and hysterical climactic scene.
In keeping with Molière’s focus, the production satirizes the medical profession, advances in technology, and the culture’s preoccupation with youth and thwarting death through every medical and technological advance possible. For good measure this version of The Imaginary Invalid targets and ridicules the male sexual ego (the Viagra generation), and male sexual libido whether it is faux or “hyped up” past a certain age.
As Argan acts on his everlasting dream of vitality and virility, it is ironic (as Adrien and Bauer have elucidated) to recognize the outrageous depths that Argan, and by extension all of us, go to receive the cures of charlatans who promise youth and health, but cannot adequately deliver. Along the journey we meet the object of Argan’s desire to stay young forever, his outlandish gold-digger wife (whom we question as to what Argan sees in her), and his sweet faithful daughter (whom he intends to disinherit because of an argument). Included in Argan’s retinue is the daughter’s older fiancee (a twist on looking for Daddy), another predator. This update, in keeping with Molière’s version, has an uplifting ending, perhaps all the more poignant because in life, it often is the reverse.
Molière wrote The Imaginary Invalid when extremely ill, indeed nearly on his death bed. To some extent one can intuit that the playwright was attempting to deal with his own fears of death and disease, and tried to laugh at himself in this, his last work. Though the play was first presented at the Palais Royal Theatre in 1673, Adrien and Bauer have brought the message lucidly to our age and time. Because it is unknowable, death is unacceptable and fearful, though it is part of the process of life. As in Molière’s time, this version shows that if one is wealthy, one will be a target for doctors, counselors and all those who peddle youth and prey upon our fears of looking/being “old.” This is one of the most human and real of Molière’s comedies, all of which have timeless themes. La Grande Nouvelle is a noteworthy update of this master playwright’s work. I was fortunate to be able to see this production directed by Philippe Adrien, one of the most accomplished French directors alive today.
Whether you are in the dramatic arts or you are planning a trip to Paris, France, check out the program for The Storm Theatre or the other theaters at La Cartoucherie in Le Bois de Vincennes. It is well worth the trip to the park, and the theater productions will provide an unforgettable Parisian experience.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=1477420177][amazon template=iframe image&asin=082889941X][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0199540187]