BWW Review: PARIS FRINGE at Theatre De Verre
This year I had the pleasure of attending a weekend of theatre presented as part of the third annual Paris Fringe Festival, a festival of English theatre in Paris. The festival is young and is going through constant change and development. The largest change this year was the venue; they used to be based next door to the Folies Bergère at the Theatre Les Feux De La Rampe, which has shut down this past year. So this season the fringe tried a new time and a new venue: fall at the Theatre De Verre, a lovely theatre space hidden from view behind the Place des Fêtes.
Though the festival came to an end as I was sitting in the theatre taking notes, I wanted to publish a review because fringe performers thrive on them. I hope to give these hard-working artists some good marketing material to ensure that they can take their shows to other cities, or at least some constructive criticism that might help as they develop the show elsewhere.
The Paris Fringe hosted fifteen shows this year, a decent number to be hosted in one building over four days. Some of the shows were part of a new Fresh Faces program, which is an effort to provide newer work with the space to explore in front of an audience. The Paris Fringe and the host organization, Association Co-Arter, seem very committed to helping artists, something that I can fully get behind. However, the festival itself is still learning how to walk and there were some significant stumbles along the way. The biggest persistent issue with the festival was timing: the shows never, once, began on time. In Paris, time is not the most important thing, so you can usually expect to start a few minutes late. But by the end of each night we were waiting longer and longer- the last show of the festival started fifty minutes after the advertised start time. Their box office system also caused some confusion for audiences and performers alike, and there seemed to be a lack of volunteers available to keep things running smoothly.
There was also a lack of clarity in some of the events around the shows- in the program an opening ceremony was advertised, and yet it seemed that nobody had prepared any remarks or introductions. It was sort of thrown together at the last moment. And unfortunately, it seemed it was not the best weekend for performances. Some of the events happening in the day on Friday had no attendance whatsoever, and thus were cancelled. There was very low attendance for Thursday and Friday evenings as well, which meant shows that didn't perform on Saturday or Sunday were seen by very few people.
The thing the organization absolutely nailed was creating a space where people wanted to be- particularly because the caterer for the weekend (Isabelle Auzou @auzoubakes on Instagram) made food that was absolutely divine. More on the festival later, but for now, let's talk about the shows!
This physical theatre/clown show was quite funny, if a bit scattered. The performers all clearly had skills, but they shone through the most when dealing with the unexpected, like with audience interaction or when they realized that the backdrop for the dramatic death of one of the characters wasn't secured. The show itself was four military people making their way to a war- it was a series of vignettes that weren't completely tied to a result or message. It did make me laugh, but I was desperately wishing for their gibberish to be fully voiced. I felt that they were frequently whispering on stage, which made me feel not included in their story telling.
THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV- Spirit of the Fringe
An experiment born for the Fringe, this adaptation of the famous novel was not just a performance, but a cold reading done by the audience that took place over the whole festival. I resisted getting up and reading a part for as long as I could, but ultimately the adapter, Brecht, won me over with his charm and enthusiasm and convinced me to get on stage. No wonder he was one of two Spirit of the Fringe Winners! The adaptation is available for purchase, but it seems to be adapted much more for film than for the stage, as there are some stage directions that would be very difficult to follow, like several characters getting in a carriage and another chasing after them as they drive away.
A one man show about a sex worker in London, I was very pleased by the enthusiasm and heart in the play. I wish more audience members had been in attendance, as the performer was giving generously and deserved more support than was there in the room. Even though I sat at a distance he made every effort to reach me and it effectively hooked me in to the story he was telling. His sincerity in questioning the events of the play had me wondering what happened too- and although the end is clear, I found myself wishing for the play to continue.
LOVE FOR SALE
This one woman show is advertised as a Ted-talk style presentation that is supposed to devolve into something else. I found the description of the show to be intriguing- in studying a patient's sex aversion, a psychologist discovers that all of the patients' past lives were sex workers, and is here to present us with her findings. However, this is not what the play I saw did. It devolved into the psychologist embodying the previous lives of the patient using mask and costume elements. Because the role was played by a white woman, who then dressed in Japanese and Indian traditional clothing and embodied these characters, it devolved into a racism it could not redeem itself from. The pacing was slow and the result of the "Ted Talk" unclear. The performer, Walling, clearly has skill in mask work and was particularly enjoyable to watch portray a little girl playing with her toys. It is unfortunate that she is using her skill to tell stories that are not hers to tell.
FORM- Best Show
A physical theatre/clown show about life in an office getting turned upside down at the introduction of a paper that is not the standard colour. This show was hilarious and polished and filled with imaginative re-interpretations of everyday office objects. All three actors moved with a fluidity and precision that left me breathless.
SCOTLAND- Spirit of the Fringe
Another physical theatre/clown show (more on that later) about, you guessed it: Scotland! Funny that three people of different nationalities who trained in France come together to create a show about a place that none of them are from. But it was absolutely, uproariously hilarious. Excellent audience interaction and masterful physical comedy brought together with amazing illustrative sound effects. It was a smashing good time and had me wanting to yell "SCOTLAND!" more than once. Also, amazing singing voices on all three of the men in the cast. They made some truly beautiful and unexpected music.
STATE OF EMERGENCY
This was part of the Fringe's Fresh Faces program, which allows new work to be presented and explored. I don't want to review the piece necessarily, as I was able to give my thoughts to the artists during their talkback session as to what worked and what didn't. But I do want to commend the Fringe itself for creating a space where new work can be made better.
MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM
Unfortunately, I was not able to see this one in full as there was a late start. This was also part of the Fresh Faces program. All I feel compelled to say is that focusing on The Mechanicals' part in A Midsummer Night's Dream is not a new idea or concept. There are many Shakespeare plays that go under explored and I would love to see more done with those. To the young people who made this bit of theatre, bravo on starting down this path, and please push the boundaries further! And remember that just because you haven't seen it does not mean it has not been done. An additional kudos for dealing with the power outages that were happening throughout the day of your performance.
SOLO CREO EN EL FUEGO- Best Performance
This play was presented in a mix of French and English with a heavier dose of Spanish, and it explored the relationship between Anais Nin and Henry Miller. I was not familiar with their story before but watching the show had me fascinated about these people. The performers also gave us lots of relief in moments of direct address, discussing the nature of relationships, family ties, and autobiographies. A wonderful mix of funny and serious, with a lot of passion too, this production had to deal with more than their fair share of behind the scenes drama as well. During the end of their first performance of the festival, the technical booth just behind the performance space was robbed- and rather loudly, I was told. And during the second and final presentation, the fire alarm started to go off. The performers handled themselves well throughout and I barely even noticed it in the end. Two very strong performances and a beautiful set and lighting set up (especially considering the limitations of the theatre we were in) impressed me. I hope this show continues to tour.
The final show of the festival was a disappointment. Many things crossed the line for me, including racist jokes, sexist jokes, physical abuse as a joke, and mocking the festivals' resident stage manager (who did an excellent job managing several shows and did not deserve to be blamed for the blackouts that had been happening at the venue and causing problems, even if the joke was meant to be playful). If your characters are supposed to be jerks, give them at least one redeeming quality. But if that's all they are, I am not interested in watching your show. It was a disappointing note to end the festival on and a staunch reminder that these ideas exist even in theatrical circles. I don't get the impression that the festival had any knowledge of the content of the show before programming it, and it had a good reputation outside of the festival. There were several bits that were funny or could have been funny, but the extreme elements turned me off to the show entirely. The performers also self sabotaged with this joke: Every time someone's laugh would stand out, they would glare at that person. It was funny, but it made the audience afraid to laugh. By the end of the show, the actors were desperately trying to get us to laugh at their antics and it didn't matter; we were lost to them.
All in all, what I learned most at the Paris Fringe was that there is one type of show that is being produced more than others right now. They seem to be physical theatre/clown hybrid shows created by and featuring men. Three of the fifteen shows fit this description and have other common points as well: a scene in a boat, an over dramatic death or injury, virtually non-verbal, a fight, walking in circles, and more. These three shows were developed by three different companies from three different countries, yet all had a basis in the same thing. It left me wondering where the women doing these types of shows were, and why they weren't here in Paris. And why, 1/5th of the festivals programming was so similar in structure.
I hope that many more artists will apply to be the part of next years' Paris Fringe! Keep an eye on parisfringe.org for all the updates.