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Tuesday, July 26, 2005


Le Dernier Caravansérail
directed by Ariane Mnouchkine, performed by Théâtre de Soleil
at the
Lincoln Center Festival

The two installments of Ariane Mnouchkine’s Le Dernier Caravansérail consist of a total of 42 scenes. There are some consistent characters, but no steady progression of any one plot. The episodes go back and forth in time, and from one end of the world to the other. Like the refugees who are the piece’s dramatic characters and real-life subjects, the audience, too, is constantly dislocated and unmoored from our conventional theatrical bearings. Furthering the estrangement (at least in the Lincoln Center presentation) many of the languages spoken onstage are unfamiliar to most Western ticket-buyers, and even the projected translation-titles are sporadic and often illegible.

If these sound like faults—and you can’t imagine sitting through six hours of them—then maybe Dernier Caravansérail is not for you. Or maybe it is, so you can experience the amazement of how engaging it is in spite of its flouting of our usual conventions. Words, individuals, geographic locations in Dernier become a deliberate blur. Hence, a conventional synopsis does no good in describing it. Instead I will offer some selected impressions of Mnouchkine’s astounding theatrical impressionism:

- The Sea: Part I is entitled “Le Fleuve Cruel”, an image powerfully realized in the opening scenes of both parts. Mnouchkine takes the primitive rough-theatre trick of waving a sheet to represent the sea and blows it up into horrifying proportions. The entire company, it seems, fans out to the edges of the sizeable stage, grabbing hold of enormous swaths of silken grey tarps, as wind machines from below and thunderous sound effects from above all create a tempest before our eyes out of nothing. Then we watch people try to cross from one side of the stage to the other in a wicker basket on pulleys, which is helpless against the violent “waves,” so loud we can barely hear their screamed "dialogue." (Mnouchkine often seems to take advantage of the subtitles to drown out human speech altogether with noise.) There is nothing cute about the children’s theatre technique employed here. When one man falls out of the basket and is seen drifting upstage, we are terrified.

- A Fence: What better to represent the “borders” between the safe and the unsafe world, between “us” (the leisure-taking audience) and the endangered characters we spectate than a barbed wire fence. (Ours is a century "woven with barbed wire," writes Helene Cixous in the program.) Mnouchkine employs this visual set piece in one of the storylines as a stark downstage frame, with the actors behind it, always trying to break through to “the other side.” This fence--an oppressive "fourth wall" in many ways--specifically locates us in northern France, along the train tracks of the “Chunnel” leading to England. Ruthless smugglers cut open the wire and push through those desperate enough to pay in cash, servitude, or prostitution. But the image is universal. The ferocity—and agility—with which Mnouchkine’s actors cling to, mount, and rattle this precarious prop says more about the characters’ dire straits than any soliloquy ever could.

- Wheels: Almost no one touches the ground in this epic of mobility and transience. The action is played out on small platforms which are wheeled out (pageant-wagon style) for each scene. The small structures built on these represent homes, offices, even a patch of earth, and actors are forced into tight enclosures. These shacks on wheels induce constant claustrophobia, as well as a kind of violating voyeurism when we are literally spying through small windows, which allow us to see only segments of the actors’ bodies. “Outside” these islands await other ensemble members with little dollies, ready to transport actors in and out of the scene. The cumulative effect (and Dernier Caravanserail itself is one big cumulative effect) is the sensation of constant “floating” in this “cruel river”. The uprooting of these people, the lack of anything grounded or stable is always palpable. The elegant gliding of people and places is balanced by the real human energy going into moving them all (no fancy turntables here) and then the frenetic running around of actors between scenes, as they hurry across the large expanse of the stage; they are at once actors rushing to take their place and characters in search of a place.

- Machines: In age when we are used to being dazzled by stage technology, Mnouchkine deliberately reserves such tactics for her chilling depictions of “The West.” A television screen pops up in the front of one of the more sleek platform sets: a flourescent-lit immigration office in Melbourne is interrogating an Iraqi asylum seeker, whose presence is only on screen, the way the Australian officials see him. Typical of the play’s depiction of the West’s efforts to alleviate the refugee crisis, the only connection across this cultural divide is via satellite. Another platform takes us inside a cargo bay at DeGaulle Airport, where an African immigrant, resisting the efforts to force her on a plane is beaten into submission, seemingly to death. Like some of the greatest scenes in the production, there is no intelligible dialogue at all, all voices drowned out by the exaggerated blasting of jet engines and exhaust fumes (the airport from hell?); and we watch everything through plastic sheeting. The most menacing—and spectacular—flaunting of Western technology comes in the opening of Part II, on another cruel river, as a flimsy skiff—a haunting little visual tableau recalling the “Raft of the Medusa”—is intercepted by Australian border guards descending from the sky, machine-men in black helmets and goggles, dangling unnaturally from the air as their artificially amplified voices intone over the roar of helicopters, “You are illegally in these waters! You must turn back!” A one-sided depiction? Don’t borders have to be enforced? Perhaps. But it is an incredibly effective retelling of this all-too-common confrontation from the "boat people’s" point of view.

Mnouchkine’s goal is expressly political—to educate us about the terror people live through today as they try to escape such repressive or volatile places as Iran, Afghanistan, and Chechnya. And to implore us to take action to help, to reform our “asylum” policies; maybe we will think twice before turning away those rafts of “huddled masses” at our shores if we know what they sacrificed to get here. It is for this reason Dernier Caravanserail is unforgivingly bleak, and hard to watch. An air of menace constantly hangs over the proceedings, as if something awful is always about to happen—and frequently it does. (When an Afghan man returns to his little shack late in the play, it spins around to reveal the dangling corpse of his intended, pinned to the back by the Taliban.) No redeeming “triumph of the human spirit” moments, this is not "Hotel Rwanda."

But to look for any bite-sized "message of the play" in such a sprawling documentary pageant such as this would be fruitless--and belittling of Mnouchkine's achievement. So much of the power derives from an implicit assertion that the pain of these people is theatrically unknowable. Identification becomes impossible through the wire fences, language barriers and fracured narratives. Interspersed throughout are "real" voices speaking to us in recorded voiceover and projected writing on the wall, recounting just some of the horrors and some of the dreams from the people represented on stage--to draw attention to the distance between the play and the reality. (Hence the theatrical machinery of the play, what little there is, is always manifest.) That Dernier Caravansérail is theatrical is both its limitation, then, and its magic.

Other reviews: NY Times; New York Magazine; New Yorker (John Lahr); V. Voice (for an insightful negative review); NY Post (for a cheap negative review)

(For a fuller synopsis, an account of the project’s genesis, and more on just who Mnouchkine is, read McNulty’s informative profile of the director in the Voice. The Times was apparently too busy interviewing Corey Feldman and Elizabeth Berkely this summer...)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this wonderful detailed description of some moments in this vast and overwhelming theatrical experience. I could not do it and just told people: you gotta go!