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Theater review: La Mélancolie des dragons charms us with French stage whimsy

Written by
David Cote

Last time director Philippe Quesne was in town, his artist-avatar Serge (Gaëtan Vourc’h) regaled visitors in a rec room by putting on light-and-sound shows both silly and beautiful (“Ride of the Valkyries” blasting while outside sliding-glass doors, a car blinked headlights in time to Wagner). Not a lot has changed since 2010; Quesne’s touring piece, La Mélancolie des dragons, also centers on humble but dogged spectacle-makers putting on a low-key presentation for our giggling delectation. Vourc’h is back, too: He’s one of seven men traveling around creating a pop-up amusement park. The fellas lean toward dubbing their creation “Parc Antonin Artaud,” after the French theorist of “Theatre of Cruelty,” but sadism is the last thing you expect from such a sweet-natured crew.

Instead, Quesne explores audio-visual tableaux in a disarmingly gentle, dreamy mode. On a snowy woodland set installed in The Kitchen, we see a 1990 Citroën hooked up to a trailer. Four guys in denim and heavy-metal wigs sit inside, sipping Buds and munching Lays chips. They crank up AC/DC and other big-hair bands behind rolled-up windows, eventually dozing to the righteous strains of The Scorpions’ “Still Loving You.”

That’s when Isabelle (Isabelle Angnotti) enters the wintry glade, a middle-aged lady of uncertain relation to the men. There’s a quiet, affectionate greeting, Isabelle checks out their busted motor, phones for replacement parts, and then the guys offer to demonstrate features of their park. The trailer is revealed to be a Plexiglas-walled diorama in which wigs dangle from fishing line. Add red lights, smoke machine and a fan, and you’ve head-banging hairpieces. Isabelle gasps and murmurs approval at the ridiculous effect. Les artistes smile shyly, kick at the snow and ask if she wants to see the next trick.

To go further into the non-existent plot might spoil the imagistic parade (bubble machine, giant inflatables, video projection), but really, as the saying goes, you had to be there. Merely describing the sequence of events doesn’t do justice to the quiet beauty of their unfolding, or the unforced charm of the performers. The 80-minute Mélancolie doesn’t traffic in cheap surrealism or literary pretensions; it exudes a childlike fascination with magic achieved on a purely technical level by machines and human perception. Seeing a troupe of obliging magicians patiently lay bare their sorcery is key to the wonder.

The Kitchen (Off-Off Broadway). Conceived, designed and directed by Philippe Quesne. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 20mins. No intermission. Through Jan 14. Click here for tickets. Click here for more Under the Radar reviews.

Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote       

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