L'Effet de Serge

A French import evokes low-tech wonder.

It bears repeating every year: Under the Radar no longer deserves its self-effacing moniker. Mark Russell has built his whirlwind festival into a red-letter offering, a one-stop shop for avant-garde discovery. But even among experimental celebrities such as Ping Chong and Richard Maxwell, Philippe Quesne’s name stands out. After four years, the French auteur and his Vivarium Studio return to New York with the well-traveled L’Effet de Serge (Serge’s Effect), a haunting piece of metatheater as exquisitely detailed as a Persian miniature.

Considering that the production has been the toast of festivals from Avignon to Reykjavk, Iceland, L’Effet is remarkable for its refusal to indulge in a single “dramatic” gesture. Instead, in a cluttered basement rec room, gentle Serge (Gatan Vourc’h) greets friends for a glass of wine and a spectacle. Serge’s performances are short and low-tech (in one, he accompanies “Ride of the Valkyries” with blinking car headlights), but they are transcendently sweet. After each nano-spectacle, the deadpan Serge accepts compliments from his audience, which then departs.

Director Quesne, 39, could himself be a Serge—his company started as a theatrical laboratory in an apartment, where he and his collaborators experimented with microtheatrical entertainment. (Early tests included jumping off stools while trying to fly, games that would later become the multimedia project The Itching of the Wings.) But Quesne maintains that Serge is not his alter ego. “There are numerous Serges in the world,” he notes. “They’re artists who—amateur or not—feel free to create.”

In fact, Quesne came to directing only in 2003, after spending years as a designer. The stamp of his first career lingers: Pieces boast a rigorously controlled decor, preoccupied—even in interior scenes—with the out-of-doors. Each set is like a terrarium (or vivarium), a world under glass. Within these snow globes, Quesne’s company kicks back with ultracasual dialogue. In L’Effet, most of Serge’s friends are locally cast and uncoached. Explains Quesne, “We integrate local actors, who add the 'effect’ of reality.”

In 2005, The Itching of the Wings bewitched New Yorkers with its narrative trajectories and video flight simulators. Since then, Quesne has turned low-tech. In an effort to “stage magic,” as he puts it, he employs simple tricks, connecting plays in a daisy chain. “Each of my shows starts at the end of the previous one, overlapping like dominoes,” he notes. “L’Effet starts with the last sequence of D’Aprs Nature (After Nature)”—which explains why Serge first appears wearing a spacesuit. It’s an uncomplicated ploy but one with far-reaching, rather melancholy results. It also makes you pantingly eager to see what comes next...a very special effect, indeed.

L’Effet de Serge is playing at the 3LD Art & Technology Center through Jan 16.

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