Wednesday, November 19, 2008

sortilège du coin

Ever since I arrived in Montparnasse, I have felt peculiarly drawn to the rue de la Gaîté. I don't know why. Perhaps its name: a street that promises gayety is not to be bypassed. Or its history: in the pleasure days of the 19th century this was a spot where Parisians came for, well, gayety, for dance, drink, and amour. In the last century these pleasures evolved into music halls and burlesque theaters, most famously Bobino, where Piaf sang and Chevalier got his start. Now interspersed with peep shows, the street remains nonetheless a theater district, a miniature Times Square full of show crowds, neon, and the buzz of cafés.

The other night I saw "Les Sortilèges de l'Amour" at the Comédie Italienne, surely the smallest theater on the rue de la Gaîté, where for the price of a ticket I bought a potent dose of magic. Just buying the tickets was an experience. Pushing open the little swinging door that separates theater from street I entered a darkened lobby hung with masques and costumes, where a voice from nowhere greeted me. Eventually I located a spotlit desk at the far end, where I met Attilio Maggiulli, co-founder of the Comédie, adapter/translator/director of "Les Sortilèges," ... and ticket-seller on this slow afternoon. Signor Maggiulli, Italian by birth, has dedicated much of his long career to bringing Commedia dell'Arte to France, studying with the eminent Giorgio Strehler in Milan, collaborating with Ariane Mnouchkine and the Theâtre du Soleil as well as the Comédie Française, and launching his Teatrino Italiano in Montparnasse in 1974. He moved to his present location, the former site of a police commisariat, in 1980, and expanded next door in 1991, replacing a sex shop (more on hybridization in a moment). Famous for his revivals of the Italian Baroque, he has also created an adaptation of Gramsci's "Prison Notebooks," and more recently, as a sequel to his "George W. Bush ou le triste Cow-Boy de Dieu" (2003),  he performed his piece called "Guantanamo Palace" in San Francisco. Told I came from Boston, his eyes lit up: "Ah, le North-End ...."    

"Les Sortilèges de l'Amour" is steeped in metamorphosis from the moment the narrator steps on-stage, wearing a parrot-mask, and delivers his prologue with little bird-coos separating the phrases. Each character in turn has such a hybrid identity: the King, a bull-dog, punctuates his speech with little barks; the ingenue Clarice not only wears a mosquito-nose and brandishes a rapier but buzzes around the stage en pointe while her exasperated father chases her with an old-fashioned bug-sprayer. The lovely Angela, played by Maggiulli's co-founder and companion Hélène Lestrade, alternates between a feminine voice of exquisite softness, and little lamb-noises that become a second lexicon of devotion.

In fact every element in this play of marvels is apt to transform into something else. The actors all play three or four parts, changing masks and costumes with a sort of mad glee. The court of faraway China becomes an enchanted forest when a set of enormous but delicate Chinese fans are folded out to make it one. Of course there is a magic spell that turns the King into a Beggar, the evil Minister into the King, the Beggar into a Cerf (deer), and even the Cerf almost becomes a Cerf-volant (kite). The play itself is a strange cross-fertilization of works by Goldoni and Gozzi, contemporaries and bitter rivals whose involuntary collaboration in "Sortilèges" is a theatrical inside-joke.

But the greatest metamorphosis is the one the viewer experiences stepping into Maggiulli's miniature world. The theater itself, with no more than fifty seats, is like a jewelry case lined with deep red plush. When the narrator pushes open the curtain, he reveals a small stage whose every surface is adorned with little decorative emblems--pictures, bits of glitter, hanging things-- suggestive of someplace faraway. Maggiulli's characters speak in an antique French that retains the inflations of court-Italian, though they lapse as well into speech rhythms--"Permesso?" " Avanti!"--more suited to a present-day trattoria. Likewise the magic curtain--what Maggiulli calls his féerie--parts to admit sly references to François Fillon (France's evil Prime Minister) and Carla Bruni (its balladeer First Lady). But for the most part we are swept along in the currents of the fabulous, so that when the actors remove their masks at the second curtain call, their reinsertion into the everyday is a more outrageous travesty than the play itself.

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