Ariane Mnouchkine

The French auteur captures time.

LA MAMA Mnouchkine prepares her latest epic.

LA MAMA Mnouchkine prepares her latest epic. Photograph: Michle Laurent

On the international scene, only a handful of directors are her peers—the English Peter Brook, Italy’s Luca Ronconi—and with the recent deaths of Harold Pinter and Pina Bausch, the ranks of such titans are thinning. And yet, Ariane Mnouchkine, animating spirit of the legendary Theatre du Soleil, isn’t the type to sweep in regally, waving from the elbow. As she tromps around the Park Avenue Armory, inspecting her technicians’ preparations for her latest, Les phmres (The Ephemeral Ones), she resembles a grandmother who may have just taken her bread out of the oven...after building the oven from scratch.

Warm and no-nonsense, Mnouchkine, 70, has been shaking theatrical foundations for almost 50 years. Her investigations into Asian traditions such as Kathakali dance influenced the Western theater for decades, as did her willingness to tackle topics like colonialism and the ideals of governance in 1974’s 1789 and Tambours sur la Digue in 2001. This time, her work has turned radically inward: Les phmres is a two-part, seven-hour “internal epic,” told in tiny, domestic scenes that sail—rotating gently on table-size platforms—past banks of audience.

Nigel Reddin, director of the Lincoln Center Summer Festival, welcomes her back because “hers is one of the major theaters of the world.” Many are still reeling from her 2005 visit, when Reddin imported the epic Le Dernier Caravansrail (Odysses), which set the audience adrift among armies of refugees through wheeled mini stages and rippling silk. For many, Caravansrail was the theatrical event of the year. So why the four-year absence? Reddin did try to import Tambours, but was foiled by the show’s logistical requirements (namely, a dike and a river). By comparison, constructing a huge tent in Damrosch Park for Caravansrail, or building a theater-within-a-theater at the Armory, has been child’s play. “It’s never easy bringing Ariane,” Reddin admits with a laugh.

That’s because “bringing Ariane” means bringing her mammoth company (40 strong and a dozen children) and its egalitarian ethic, which requires a kitchen and communal eating space. Theatre du Soleil’s usual home is the Cartoucherie, a gigantic ex--munitions factory in Paris, where actors serve audience members intermission meals and nearly 400 ousted Malian refugees were once offered months of asylum. This activism (in 1995, Mnouchkine went on a monthlong hunger strike to protest France’s nonintervention in Bosnia), shows up in her work as a willingness to accuse unfeeling governments. Reddin describes the surprisingly unpolitical Les phmres as “a piece about the remembrances that will define us. It won’t be the war in Iraq that defines us; it will be our memories.”

Mnouchkine will still make epics inspired by the sweep of history (she hints that her next work will be overtly political). “Every piece gives birth to the next, and a child must be different from its parents,” she explains. “Theater is a kind of path we walk. In this one we came into the strange country of our own memories.”

Originally, phmres’s 29 interlacing scenarios came from improvisations about the end of the world. But instead of futuristic vignettes, the results revolve around bittersweet reminiscence, family and human fragility. One character sells her dead mother’s house, a transsexual eats birthday cake alone, an old woman insists that her illness is really a pregnancy. Scenes can be excruciatingly personal. “Different plays take different tools: an ax or a gun or a net,” says Mnouchkine of this rare exercise in naturalism. “This time we needed only a stethoscope.”

This sudden attention to simplicity should not be confused for asceticism or turning away from the world. That’s a quality she associates with one famous colleague. “I admire Peter Brook immensely,” she says. “I am not one who can abandon pleasure. Theater has to be nourishing for your flesh: Voil! I think Peter has become monastic, but I am still too childish.”

Indeed, Mnouchkine is passionately anti-abstraction. Her theater tends to be as about as rarefied as a piece of bread or a concrete wall. “We don’t ask ourselves about process,” she cries. “On the battlefield, in the rehearsal room, there is only action!” And yet, it is appropriate that, as she remounts Les phmres for New York, Mnouchkine is slowing down to think about mortality. “Someday, I too will end, though the theater may not,” she muses. “I cannot define it; how can I describe my life without me? But the project can live on without me—if I prepare it very well.” Flexing her capable hands, looking hungrily back toward the theater where her actors will rehearse, the director is ready to go. Mnouchkine is itching to get back to work.

Les phmres is at the Park Avenue Armory through July 19.

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