Anne-Cécile Vandalem's Arctique, now in production at the Avignon Theatre Festival's La FabricA, is a spectacular and rare diversion in a program laden with portentous prophesying. Equal parts Black Mirror and Murder on the Orient Express, Arctique is set after the fall of global warming in 2025. Though, never mind that, the downfall of world order is simply a social backdrop. Doubt not however that Vandalem has made a deep social mythology to rival the best of the speculative fiction genre. It's just that, dramatically speaking, she simply has more pressing matters to deal with.

One by one characters enter the ship's main ballroom, designed with an appropriate sense of dated glory by Ruimtevaarders. We witness their arrival first by video projected on the upstage big screen. Unlike in Joueurs, Mao II, Les Noms it is somewhat ambiguous as to what here is done live and what is previously filmed. Each character, save "the kid," a gun wielding young girl named Lucia, arrives by cryptic invitation to take this never launched cruise ship to Greenland. Of this invited group we meet an actor researching for a role, a widow who accepted the invitation in the stead of her dead husband, and a mysterious figure wearing sunglasses and identity concealing parka. A few days after the ship sails off it is trapped in the arctic, and Vandalem begins to pull back the curtains of a complex and fascinating mystery.

The ensemble moves together with clockwork precision and ease. Zoé Kovacs is particularly phenomenal as a singing Agatha Christie answer to Wednesday Addams. Pierre Kissling designs music and sound with sharp cinematic plasticity. Enrico Bagnoli's lighting design skimps on neither the trompe-l'oeil realism of the space, nor the mysterious atmosphere of the piece. Laurence Hermant's costumes fancifully betray the pulse of fun undergirding the whole affair. Video work by Federico D'Ambrosio helps to sync the event to a cinematic scale. Also, for any Anglophones considering attending but afraid to get lost in the fray, there is English sur-titling.

Balancing a crime puzzle and building a social fiction simultaneously is tricky territory. The audience must feel as though it knows enough to make a judgment about reveals or properly anticipate turns in action, yet simultaneously enter a complex world of grounded rules. Vandalem does this, and somehow still manages to mix in moments of subtle poetry and irreverent vaudevillian-dinner theatre. While not frivolous, Anne-Cécile Vandalem kept pomposity at bay, and her audience on the edge of their seat.

Photo Credit: Christophe Raynaud de Lage

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From This Author Wesley Doucette

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