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Time is fleeting in French berdirector Ariane Mnouchkine’s new work with her communal troupe, Le Théâtre du Soleil. Seconds are cherished, squandered, partly regained or lost forever. Mostly, time slips away. That’s quite a feat, since Les Éphémères clocks in at nearly seven hours. And almost every moment is pure brilliance.
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The subject of this astounding two-play picaresque—at once everyday and epic—is the way that memory can eclipse the present. With her threescore-plus company of actors, musicians and technicians, Mnouchkine orchestrates a spellbinding mosaic of 29 scenes in which we witness domestic dramas unfolding. A grieving daughter prepares to sell her dead mother’s house and finds herself investigating the family’s past. An American transsexual living in Paris welcomes a lonely neighbor girl on his birthday. A single mother plays delightfully with her daughter, and seconds later lashes into her estranged husband over the phone. There are a dozen more narrative threads, adding up to an intimate panorama of broken families, happy ones, lost souls and good Samaritans. Some story lines intersect; others stand alone. Acts of compassion or cruelty are punctuated by Proustian flashbacks, which deepen the emotional portraiture.
Mnouchkine and the actors’ control of tone and atmosphere is simply masterful, while the stagecraft is elemental yet refined: Actors glide in and out of the narrow playing space on small, wheeled platforms that stagehands slowly rotate, creating the theatrical equivalent of 360-degree camera pans. In this sense, Mnouchkine gives the audience an omniscient perspective. But no one plays God here. We can empathize with every character and their complex, all-too-human dilemmas. Warning: Given the long duration and often slow pacing of Les Éphémères—not to mention the charming but hard wooden benches—even Mnouchkine fans may grow restless. The entire work is beautifully crafted, but in truth, not every single moment is equally memorable.—David Cote