Who knows what dreams Orpheus may have had as he searched for his lost Eurydice? Might he not have envisioned her high in the air, trapped in an immense waterfall of thick gray ropes that occasionally snake around her flailing limbs? Or, could that scuttling creature with arms and legs crooked like a grasshopper’s be she, enchanted by a giant malevolent bug?
As demonstrated in his magical Au Revoir Parapluie, James Thiérrée’s imagination is tethered to reality only by the frailest of golden threads. This brilliant director, dancer, mime, acrobat, and musician has barely touched down on the Orpheus legend. Inspired by it, he has designed a free-floating narrative of love and loss, in which a man travels in and out of his memories, encountering bizarre obstacles. Time is fluid; space is flexible and full of surprises. A black velvet tent-in reverse (corners suspended, center flattened on the floor) turns into a shabby garret with a skeletal gold rocking chair that can whirl a man (Thiérrée) through many slow evolutions. Later, floor panels are pried up to create a “lake,” and helmeted crew members ring it with rushes—two of which become foils for an absurd duel between Thiérrée and the bumbling (but athletic) clown Magnus Jakobsson.
Beside Thiérrée and Jakobsson, who plays an interfering workman, the remarkable cast includes Satchie Noro, a dancer and aerial artist, as the hero’s beloved; Kaori Ito, a dancer and choreographer, as their elfin child; and actress-singer Maria Sendow, who portrays a cross between a sorceress and the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Magic Flute (in other words, a mother-in-law from hell).
Thiérrée was raised in the beyond-bigtop Cirque Imaginaire, created by his parents, Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée and Victoria Chaplin. His persona—the poet-dreamer as beleaguered Everyman owes as much to Marcel Marceux’s “Bip” as to the Little Tramp of his celebrated grandfather, Charlie Chaplin. But his take on classic mime is subtle and individual, and rarely does >Au Revoir Parapluie traffic in the whimsy and pathos often associated with French artists like Marceau or songwriter Jacques Brel. When Thiérrée’s own jacket entraps him, fluid ease trumps puzzlement and irritation. “It’s just my coat,” he seems to be saying; “it gets this way sometimes.” And he’s a marvelous dancer; when he pauses by the pond, he becomes fascinated by a bunch of reeds he’s plucked and—forgetting his quest for a while—flourishes it, wheeling and twisting softly in an imagined wind.
Linear narrative, unchanneled, permits such detours. When Thiérrée is about to embark on his dangerous journey, his heart beats loudly (on tape), but, groping around his chest, he can’t find it. Suddenly suspicious, he pulls up a trouser leg. There it is, pumping just above his knee! He maneuvers it back into place. At one point, Jakobsson somersaults in, bearing a map. This leads to a hilarious act by the two men—a befuddling labyrinth of gestural directions. Jakobsson also grabs the limelight for a mimed magic trick: See what I have in my hand? (actually nothing). Now, see what I’m holding? It’s vanished! He’s undaunted by our laughter.
Places, people, and situations shift at a moment’s notice. Now Thiérrée is grasping Noro’s inert hand, dancing in front of her with increasing fervor, wanting her to join him. After he’s exhausted himself, she comes to life and kites around the stage like a leaf in a windstorm. She hangs on his back, and he doesn’t know it. Sometimes she and Ito are safe in bed, snuggled up together; the next minute they’ve vanished— swallowed by the lashing gray bundle, their arms and legs protruding from it high above the stage floor. (Tiny Ito, by the way, is not actually a mischievous, nimble ten-year-old boy, but a gifted and preternaturally flexible female dancer.)
The music ranges from instrumental taped Bach to liturgical chant and rasping folksongs in an unfamiliar tongue. Sendow sings in many guises and in many situations, e.g. cranking a little circus organ while being wheeled around on a cross between a chariot and a crane. She also appears in some fantastic outfits (costumes by Thiérrée’s mother and Manon Gignoux), including a sort of fabric seashell out of which a voracious fish’s head shoots, and an elegant Edwardian summer-white outfit with a train that has a mind of its own and a hat that spins.
There are few longeurs in this entrancing show (one occurs when the family members rest on a suddenly erected tightrope while a set change is completed). The aerial work has its own metaphoric power. When the lost bride hangs onto a giant suspended hook and flies around the stage while her husband tries to soar to her, she’s just as unattainable as Eurydice queening it in the Underworld—only more beautiful. Thiérrée’s sense of fantasy is redemptive. The world is alive with pitfalls, and things that are not what they seem to be. If we have wit, imagination, and resourcefulness, he might be saying, what we want most will alight beside us and allow us to embrace it.