By Miriam Felton-Dansky
By Lilly Lampe
By R. C. Baker
By Tom Sellar
By Alexis Soloski
By Molly Grogan
By R. C. Baker
The Paradise Project
By John Kelly
Songs by Mark Campbell and Michael Torke
512 West 19th Street
Kelly, who began as a dancer, knows from notes. What escapes him in this new piece, at least so far, is a combination of structure and theme. Baptiste, the principal male character of Marcel Carné's 1945 film Children of Paradise (played unforgettably by Jean-Louis Barrault), is based on a historical figure, the celebrated French mime Jean-Baptiste Deburau. The role understandably obsesses Kelly; what he seems to have missed is that Baptiste's is only one kind of performance displayed in the film, which is so deeply loved by theater people because it contains virtually every imaginable mode of performance, from peep show to poetic tragedy. The other men in the film who flutter around the beautiful but elusive Garance, all performers in their way, are equally engrossing historical figures: Frédéric Lemaître, the great actor who made Shakespeare viable on the French stage (reduced by Kelly to a pompous narcissist), and the master criminal Lacenaire, whose memoirs remain a true-crime classic (omitted entirely by Kelly, though he's the driving force behind the movie's plot).
Kelly's piece falls into three parts: First a contemporary New York artist, heading towards total breakdown, is transformed by seeing Children of Paradise. Next, he dreams his way into the role of Baptiste, performing a sizable chunk of the film's central mime sequence, to Joseph Kosma's soundtrack music. This leads to a confrontational third section in which the film's other characters Garance, Baptiste's fiancée Nathalie, and Frédéricgive vent to their feelings in song. In an epilogue, the artist, now transformed permanently into the despairing Baptiste, disappears into the film; he vanishes through a screen containing a huge projected close-up of the actress playing Garance.
For those who don't know the film, the piece as it stands can hardly make sense; for those who do, it isn't enough. If it stuck to the young artist's own troubled feelings, and viewed the complexly formed film through his personal prism, its overwrought quality would make sense; but when the other characters give vent to their feelings, you immediately start looking for a balance and breadth that the piece, unlike the film, doesn't possess. The pity is that Kelly has the capacity to do something great with this material: He proves it easily with the wonderful moment when he wakes to find that his bedsheet has become Baptiste's Pierrot costume. Kelly's singing, disturbingly, has become harsh in tone and erratic in pitch, making an unpleasant match with the lush, assured sound of Wendy Hill's Garance. But it's hard to tell what place Michael Torke's mellifluous tunes are meant to have in this context; they jar with the familiar sound of Kosma's score, and the songs seem arbitrarily dropped in, in a clump, for no particular reason other than that a new piece must have new music.
But what is the new piece? We already know that Baptiste vanishes into the crowd; Kelly is only adding a needless echo. Rather than create a new piece at all, he might think usefully about restoring to the stage the mime work that Prevert and Kosma actually created for the theater, a reconstruction of one of Deburau's most celebrated pieces, which contains all of the film's mime sequences except the very first one. It hasn't been seen in New York since Barrault performed it here with his company, exactly 50 years ago.