After three months of coronavirus-related restrictions, the anxiety doesn’t go away readily. Setting foot inside a Paris theater for the first time in late June, I worried that it was too soon. The audience sat on three sides of the Espace Cardin’s smaller stage — with appropriate gaps — and many people looked at one another furtively, as if to ask: Are we really doing this?
Yet about midway through “Ionesco Suite,” a medley of absurdist scenes by the French playwright Eugène Ionesco, something gave. Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota’s production, first seen in 2005 and much revived since, piles on a series of eerily over-the-top characters, and on this occasion, the seven actors contorted their faces as if their lives depended on it. From feet away, their physical freedom was so tangible that I found myself laughing and wanting to cry; a weight was lifted that no amount of at-home live streams could have made lighter.
French artists are relatively lucky. Performers around the world are at the mercy of infection levels and public policy, and the spread of Covid-19 has been curbed enough in France, for now, that all theaters were allowed to reopen from June 22. Additionally, government funding for the arts means that playing to smaller audiences isn’t a ruinous proposition, even though viewers must leave an empty seat between themselves and other groups.
Still, only a small number of venues have opened their doors. Nearly all summer productions and festivals had been canceled because of the lack of rehearsal time and uncertainty, so many producers have elected to wait until next season.
The Espace Cardin, administered by the Théâtre de la Ville, was first. “Ionesco Suite” was part of “The Wake,” a 48-hour event that comprised performances, concerts and readings at all hours in and around the building. There is no telling who, exactly, emerged from lockdown with a pressing need to listen to Dante’s “Divine Comedy” at 3 a.m., but perhaps that was the point: At last, we could do something unnecessary.
Outside this celebration, small-scale productions are understandably getting the bulk of programmers’ attention. Through the end of July, the Théâtre de la Ville is putting on family-friendly plays with tiny casts at two venues, the Espace Cardin and Les Abbesses, while the Théâtre de Belleville opted to present one-person shows.
Under normal circumstances, all would very likely be overshadowed by more extravagant projects. Theater for young audiences, especially, tends to get short shrift. “Venavi or Why My Sister Isn’t Well,” a penetrating play about grief at Les Abbesses, was first performed in 2011 and has toured extensively since, yet it isn’t nearly as well known as it should be.
Its author, Rodrigue Norman, was born in Togo, and the plot is based on the belief there that twins are sacred beings, feared and celebrated as demigods. The only actor onstage (the highly likable Alexandre Prince) plays Akouété, who dies as a child, leaving his twin sister Akouélé behind.
A soliloquy from beyond the grave sounds grim on paper, but “Venavi,” directed by Olivier Letellier, delicately explores the need for closure after such a loss in terms that the many children in attendance could understand. Since Akouété’s parents don’t acknowledge his death, his sister’s growth is stunted as she waits desperately for him to return from “the woods,” where she is told he has gone.
Fabrice Melquiot’s “The Separables” fared less well on the same stage. In it, the friendship between a white boy, Romain, and a girl of Algerian descent, Sabah, is tested by the racist behavior of Romain’s family. The text is fairly unsubtle, and Demarcy-Mota’s 2018 production undermines it by casting two white adults, Céline Carrère and Stéphane Krähenbühl, in the roles. Both are part of Demarcy-Mota’s company at the Théâtre de la Ville, which presumably explains his choice. Still, Carrère’s performance fell flat in a role that could be a steppingstone for another actress, as French theater remains woefully white.
The Théâtre de Belleville capitalized on the diminutive size of its auditorium to bring audiences back without too much perceived risk. Through the end of September, “A Life of Gérard in the West,” adapted from a novel by François Beaune, tells the life story of a blue-collar French worker from a small town. Gérard Potier, who directs and stars in the play, is a warm and genuine presence, but the narrative arc is too choppy, and the characters introduced too haphazardly, to convince.
Then again, perhaps Sigrid Carré-Lecoindre’s “Hedda,” whose run was interrupted in March by the lockdown, set overly high expectations. The Théâtre de Belleville brought the production back for a limited run in late June and early July, and its multilayered tale of a woman falling prey to domestic violence went straight to the heart. It is helped by a luminous central performance from Lena Paugam, who also directed, and Carré-Lecoindre steers clear of plodding didacticism, with carefully judged character details.
Not all Paris theater directors opted for restraint. Inexplicably, Wajdi Mouawad, who is at the helm of La Colline — Théâtre National, decided the time was right for an unscheduled revival of his 1997 play “Littoral,” which clocks in at 2 hours and 40 minutes. The main auditorium at La Colline normally seats 655, and few wore masks once the show started, as it will be mandatory in public indoor spaces only from Aug. 1. Even with social distancing and next to no sets, bringing in a large audience for a lengthy production doesn’t seem imperative unless the result resonates strongly with the times.
“Littoral” doesn’t, sadly. While it is ostensibly about family loss, and the journey to find a final resting place for a father, it is often overwrought, with monologues that sound even more grandiose after months of social isolation.
The actors aren’t at fault, with Gilles David a down-to-earth highlight as the father in the second of two casts. The first half of “Littoral,” which takes a more tongue-in-cheek approach to the characters’ sense of their own importance, might have made a decent offering on its own, but Mouawad’s reluctance to edit his work has always been his downfall. Now, at a time of heightened, perhaps irrational apprehension, it feels like an act of hubris.
Ionesco Suite. Directed by Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota. Théâtre de la Ville — Espace Cardin.
Venavi ou Pourquoi ma soeur ne va pas bien. Directed by Olivier Letellier. Théâtre de la Ville — Les Abbesses.
Les Séparables. Directed by Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota. Théâtre de la Ville — Les Abbesses.
Hedda. Directed by Lena Paugam. Théâtre de Belleville.
Une Vie de Gérard en Occident. Directed by Gérard Potier. Théâtre de Belleville, through Sept. 27.
Littoral. Directed by Wajdi Mouawad. La Colline — Théâtre National, through July 18.