Bring On the Sad Dragons: “La Melancolie” at REDCAT

The capacious, well-equipped theatre at REDCAT (in the basement of Disney Hall) may not be easy to find, but its mission is clear.  REDCAT hosts theatre, dance and music artists of wildly varied styles, from all over the globe.

The one thing they have in common is experiment — they all push envelopes, raise questions. About our world, and about the artistic media they use to explore it.

Enter Phillipe Quesne. For a dozen years now, his Vivarium Studio in Paris has been probing theatre — and its funhouse-mirror twin, reality — and what we expect from both.  A scene designer, Quesne is known for creating (or suggesting) a world, then looking at what humans do in it — acts often “too small” for theatre to notice.

(photo: Pierre Grosbois)

(photo: Pierre Grosbois)

La Mélancolie des Dragons, on stage at REDCAT this weekend, offers Angelenos a fine introduction to Quesne’s work. There are no dragons (though they are mentioned) and the melancholy — well, beneath the gently humorous tone, there’s a  hint. But just a hint.

There are no lectures, no monologs. Quesne’s work lies closer to theatre’s comic, physical roots: commedia dell’ arte, clowning, magic, the players’ wagons of the Middle Ages.

Indeed, a wagon’s on center stage. Pulled by a rabbit (the VW kind, not one from  a hat), it sits in an undisclosed location, covered with what appears to stage snow, surrounded by leafless stage trees. For several minutes, people in the car are busy eating snacks, drinking sodas, and changing stations on the car radio. (Small acts.)

A bicyclist arrives, behind the trees, and circles the stage. The people in the car begin to emerge — and we see there are more of them than we thought. (The classic clown car trick.) We also see, despite the long hair we’ve been reading as female, that most or all of them are men. This kind of punning permeates La Mélancolie: Cues elicit our half-conscious assumptions, then the actors puncture them.

The travelers treat the cyclist to first one then another element of the itinerant “entertainment park” they mean to offer. Countless small actions, most of them diffidently begun, make up this story; so it seems very loose, wandering without aim or intention.

But by the end, of course, we’ve seen the whole show they hope to put on. From its modest, silly beginnings (a pile of books, wigs hung on strings) to a stage-filling and ominous finale. And it has all emerged from the wagon and car.

Quesne and his crew never name anything. (Indeed, there’s a running joke about what to call their “entertainment,” with possible titles projected on the trailer, the trees, and even the walls of the theatre.  And they do tip a hand at the end, briefly flashing “Artaud Park” on the wall as an option.)

Instead of naming, these performers elicit and suggest an enormous amount. Their grandiose plans, for example, mock the human need to make spectacles and monuments, from ancient Persepolis to Disneyland Paris. And throughout, they not only honor the roots of theatre, they gently poke fun at them, teasing us to wonder why we do this thing we are in fact at that very moment doing.

It’s all handled gently — the show-makers constantly ask the cyclist’s permission to show her something, and are always solicitous of her comfort and safety.  It’s in the best tradition of clowning, no pie in the face, no cruelty (despite Artaud’s most famous phrase).

Yet it is assaultive, and in exactly the way Artaud intended. These genial fellows and their bumbling actions manage to draw from us every preconception, every unthinking assumption we walk around with.  And they always manage to twist them, undercut them, deflate them, pulling us away from our certainties toward the towering, shadowy uncertainty of their show’s final image.

This is a wonderful piece of theatre, intense and probing artistry hidden under the simplest, gentlest surfaces.  If you want to see it, you may, alas, have to travel to Paris.  REDCAT tends to book painfully short runs.

But surely several LA theatre artists who saw La Mélancolie are already wondering. Where can we get some nonexistent dragons, and how can we put them on our stages?
La Mélancolie des Dragons, written and directed by Philippe Quesne.
Presented by Vivarium Studio and the French Embassy, at REDCAT: The Roy and Edna Disney/ CalArts Theatre, 631 W. Second St.