I don't go to the theater in Paris to experience the cutting edge. For that I look to the vast and astonishing art of the French graphic novel (known here as bande dessinée, or BD) and to the fusive music of African and Eastern European performers. Paris is an entrepôt for both those forms, but in the theater you're more likely to see a stimulating production of something that's been around the block. Greek tragedy is hot this year, along with classic American musicals.
Last month I saw A Little Night Music performed so discerningly, by an elegant cast (including Leslie Caron) and a large symphony orchestra, that it actually seemed like more than Stephen Sondheim's typical blend of Ravel and The Fantasticks. Last fall I caught the Odéon theater's rendition of Sophocles' Philoctetes, which felt like an entirely new experience. I'd seen Ron Vawter's version in New York during the AIDS epidemic, and so I remembered the play as a harrowing account of stigma. But at the Odéon it was a deeply moving study of conflict and devotion between fathers and sons. I've aged into this second interpretation, but I was still surprised. And that, for me, is the essential Parisian theatrical experience: rethinking.
Now I've seen the Odéon's latest production, a reworking of A Streetcar Named Desire directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski, a favorite on the Euro-festival circuit. The main reason why I wanted to see this play yet again was the prospect of Isabelle Huppert as Blanche DuBois. I've never liked the way Vivien Leigh played Blanche in the famous film, as an orchid on the verge of rotting. But I couldn't imagine Huppert being delicately decadent, any more than I can picture Colette as a hothouse flower.
In fact, in the hands of Warlikowski, Blanche dominated the play. The script calls for that, but Huppert's performance made it inevitable. She prowled across the stage, languorous and jittery, with a voice that sounded at one moment like a soulful junkie, at another like a barely restrained predator. (A brief digression here. In this production the wardrobe is its own Venus flytrap, and only in a Parisian playbill can one find such ample billing for the couture and its creators.)
This was not your father's Streetcar Named Desire--and certainly not mine. Renamed simply Un Tramway, it was plucked from its original time and place and left to sizzle on the braziers of a neon-drenched set. Warlikowski is clearly well acquainted with the Polish theatrical tradition, which is intensely physical and in no small part French-inflected (via Artaud). But he's also absorbed the deconstructive energy that is, at this point, imbedded in European performance aesthetics. By uprooting the play and decentering its structure, placing Blanche front and center, this production transformed Williams' vision of sexual dominance and repression into a meditation on the indeterminacies of power, more Foucault than Freud. And the major beneficiary of that complicating impulse was Stanley Kowalski (drawled by Huppert as Kovaaalski).
The studly shadow of Brando in his prime makes it almost impossible to imagine Stanley as anything but the helpless boy within the irresistible brute. But Andrzej Chyra, an actor of great dexterity, allowed Stanley's Polishness to show, which is to say--and I can't believe I'm saying it--his humanism. As a result, the famous rape scene was, yes, a violation, but also a meeting of two strong and sometimes hysterical personalities. And when Huppert recited the famous line about depending on the kindness of strangers, she did so with an hauteur that seemed less a desperate compensation than a coming together. Stanley, too, was transformed. As he gazed on his wife and new baby, his hair had literally been blanched platinum.
There were problems with this production--it was too too pomo--and I don't think I'd have liked it quite as much if I'd seen it in New York. But here in Paris, where Stanleys and Blanches can be seen everywhere, striking Tennessee Williams poses, and where one can sense the complexities of love and longing under their well-selected shades and carefully knotted scarves, this Tramway was another reminder of what I admire about French theater. It lets you see inside of what you already know.