Free of Protesters, Paris Theaters Reopen With Little Imagination

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PARIS — When the Odéon Theater reopened to audiences here with a staging of “The Glass Menagerie” at the end of May, its familiar columns looked somewhat naked. For two-and-a-half months, they had been adorned with large protest signs made by the arts workers occupying the theater. Shortly before they left, one sign read: “Reopening: The Great Comedy.”

Inside occupied theaters around France, the situation grew increasingly tense in May after the government announced plans to allow performances to resume. On the one hand, a key goal of the protesters — the return of cultural life — was met. On the other, the occupations had morphed by then into a larger social movement with demands beyond the arts, including the withdrawal of coming changes to unemployment benefits.

That set protesters on a collision course with frustrated theater administrators. Yet as fast as they had spread in early March, the occupations stopped. Students at the Colline and T2G theaters left during the first week of June, while some elsewhere were forced out. The Odéon’s occupiers moved to a friendlier Paris venue, the Centquatre.

While watching “The Glass Menagerie,” though, it was hard to forget them. The Odéon didn’t help its case by reopening with a prepandemic, star-led production that felt worlds away from everything that has happened over the past year.

With the prominent director Ivo van Hove in the driver’s seat, “The Glass Menagerie” premiered shortly before the first French lockdown in March 2020. Its main selling point was the presence of Isabelle Huppert, taking the role of Amanda Wingfield, the former Southern belle teetering on the edge of reality, for the first time.

It was a work in progress when I saw it then, but it now looks as aimless as Amanda herself. The drab sets, by Jan Versweyveld, trap the cast inside brown walls decorated with the silhouette of Mr. Wingfield, Amanda’s absent husband, who abandoned the family years before.

The play’s characters are appropriately miserable in that décor, yet the actors often appear to be playing from different scores, in part because Huppert is an idiosyncratic stage presence these days. As Amanda, she is restless, even funny, as she repeatedly attempts to keep her son, Tom, from leaving by clinging to his legs. Van Hove feeds her over-the-top moments, including a scene in which she appears to masturbate on the kitchen counter while reminiscing about her youth.

Yet the performance often makes the production seem overly conscious of her aura, of her sheer Huppert-ness, to the point that her partners adjust to her energy when she is onstage.

The best scenes actually come when Laura, Amanda’s fragile daughter, is left alone with Jim, her old high-school crush. Cyril Gueï makes a kind, gentle Jim, and van Hove’s choice of a Black actor for the role reinforces the racial dynamics implicit in Amanda’s rose-tinted vision of the Old South. Gueï’s connection with Justine Bachelet’s Laura is genuine enough that for a second, a happy denouement seems within reach.

Laura, played as touchingly muted by Bachelet, briefly comes alive before resigning herself. Van Hove has given her a classic French song to sing as she gives Jim her glass unicorn as an adieu: Barbara’s 1970 “L’Aigle Noir” (“The Black Eagle”), about a traumatic childhood memory that feels exactly right for Laura’s character.

While capacity remained limited until this week to 35 percent of seats, a number of other theaters here rushed to reopen as soon as it became possible. At the tiny À La Folie Theater, the actress and director Laetitia Lebacq debuted a rare production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1946 play, “The Respectful Whore,” which is set, like “The Glass Menagerie,” in the American South.

While Sartre wrote a number of plays, they have mostly fallen out of fashion on the French stage. It’s a shame, because “The Respectful Whore,” while occasionally over-explanatory, sets up its central conflict in a compact, efficient manner. It takes place entirely at the home of a prostitute, Lizzie, who is caught up in a case of blatant racial discrimination. Two Black men are accused of raping her as a way of exculpating the white son of a senator, who shot one of them.

Lizzie herself is overtly racist, yet refuses to falsely testify that she was raped — until the senator and his son force her hand. Lebacq navigates the role of Lizzie without smoothing over her contradictions and occasional foolishness, and Baudouin Jackson brings pathos to the resignation one of the nameless accused in the face of normalized racism. Philippe Godin, as the smooth-talking senator, and Bertrand Skol, who plays his repressed son, also make an excellent case for Sartre’s character development.

As summer nears, some venues have also turned to alfresco theater to draw audiences. At the Théâtre de la Tempête, Thomas Quillardet brought two shows adapted from movies by the Nouvelle Vague filmmaker Éric Rohmer. He was renowned for the quality of his dialogue, and both “Where Hearts Meet” (inspired by two films, 1984’s “Full Moon in Paris” and 1986’s “The Green Ray”) and “The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque” flow and fizz like good champagne.

“The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque,” based on the 1993 film of the same name and performed in a park just behind the venue, also stands out for its political relevance. This story of a small-town mayor whose plans to build a multimedia library run into opposition from green activists might unfold similarly today, down to its left-wing divisions on climate issues. It even features a song praising the joys of working from home — three decades before Covid-19 made that a widespread necessity.

Plays like this are a reminder of what we’ve gained as cultural institutions reopen in France, yet the experience remains in some ways bittersweet. For over two months, from March to May, occupiers essentially reclaimed venues, like the Odéon, that usually play host to a small subset of the French population.

According to the latest large-scale study of cultural habits in the country, in 2018, only 12 percent of France’s working class had attended a theater performance in the previous year. The audience for prestige productions such as van Hove’s “Glass Menagerie,” especially, is hardly representative of French society at large.

After a year of upheaval, more imaginative offerings would have been welcome. What if directors around the country had given occupiers a chance to hold their own on the stages they spent so much time around? It’s not the social revolution protesters were gunning for, but it might have been a start.

The Glass Menagerie. Directed by Ivo van Hove. Odéon – Théâtre de l’Europe. Further performances planned in Tokyo, Athens and Amsterdam from September through November.

The Respectful Whore. Directed by Laetitia Lebacq. A La Folie Théâtre, through June 20.

Where Hearts Meet / The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque. Directed by Thomas Quillardet. Théâtre de la Tempête, through June 20.

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