Time is a river. Events past and present glide down it, vanishing into the future we can’t predict and surfacing unexpectedly out of memory. Ultimately, everything except memory disappears, and when human beings vanish, that will go, too. The world is a material place, but it also isn’t. Reality is provisional.
The Théâtre du Soleil’s giant two-part work, Les Éphémères, conceived and directed by Ariane Mnouchkine, is an anthology of events past and present sent down that river of time. Just under seven hours long, with a brief break in the middle of each of its three-hour-plus sections, it builds structures only to dismantle them, starts narratives only to leave them dangling. Trying to follow its multiplicity of stories, and sort out the links that bind them, is a daunting challenge, perhaps an impossibility. It wouldn’t surprise me, though, to learn that a hidden structure connects them all: Mnouchkine’s piece, the opening cannonade of this year’s Lincoln Center Festival, has been built with deep craft.
But the narrative connections, far from being the point of Les Éphémères, almost constitute a rebuke to it. The point is to go with the flow, to accept the fact that Time is the great devastator. Tout passe, tout casse, tout basse, says a French proverb: Everything passes, everything breaks, everything sinks. The oblivion on the other side of the curtain is where we come from, and where we go when we’re done. Mnouchkine makes this metaphysical fact visual: Her stage is a long ribbon of bare floor, with its audience seated, bleacher-style, on stiff-backed benches along either side, and a black-curtained doorway at either end.
From behind those curtains, scenes appear on wheeled platforms, varied in shape and size, pulled along by members of the company, each scene incessantly whirled as it makes its way along the road, a constant reminder that our planet constantly spins while our time on it ticks away. The whole epic ends, as it began, with a glimmer of light across a scene being slid along in otherwise total darkness: an image of mercy, of menace, of human existence itself.
Ephemera are things that don’t last, but Les Éphémères isn’t trivial. Its scenes focus on matters generally thought central to human experience—birth and death, marriage and divorce, home and work, parents and children, discovery and loss. The little details on which it often dwells are the kind that inexplicably weld themselves, in our minds, to life’s big moments: the cigarettes someone forgot to buy, the champagne glasses mistakenly brought out for white wine, the misunderstood word that reminds a foreigner of her irrevocable foreignness.
Foreignness is relevant. Evoking moments from more than half a century of French life, Les Éphémères is culturally and nationally polyglot. Armenians, Americans, Britons, Spaniards, Germans, East Europeans, and French Africans appear, along with flecks of their various languages. The piece travels on a continuous flow of underscoring, by Jean-Jacques Lemêtre, mixing live and pre-recorded music. From this current of sound rises a parade of cultural artifacts, sung or played or viewed onstage, world-class details to match the homey domestic details of the scenes: a clip of King Kong; stanzas of Schubert’s An die Musik; a movie of Maupassant’s Boule de suif; a Yiddish-theater tune from Second Avenue; Villa-Lobos’s “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5.”
Like the emotional gestures within the scenes, these cultural markers can mean nothing—or everything: A little girl, asked to pray, recites the Hebrew blessing over the Sabbath candles, and is then taught, tenderly, to recite the Lord’s Prayer instead; it turns out to mean the difference between survival and death. Life isn’t just about what happens, but about when things happen to whom. “Sometimes you have days like this,” sighs the stressed-out bourgeois matron whose maid has brought the wrong wine glasses. She doesn’t know what’s waiting around the corner to make her life even more stressful. Though built on certainties and humdrum regularities, life is an eternal surprise.
An undertaking as large as Les Éphémères inevitably has its lapses. Some—not many—of Mnouchkine’s scenes exploit the facile tropes of vaudeville sketch and melodrama; some—very few—of her actors overplay coarsely. Rather than weakening the work’s overall point, the flaws reaffirm it: Life is imperfect. Naturally, so is Les Éphémères. But to evoke such a vast range of life in seven hours, and to impose it on the audience’s imagination with such a degree of effectiveness, requires care, passion, and artistry to an extent that most theaters can barely dream of. Les Éphémères may fatigue you; it demands constant attention. Its sly interconnections, puzzles, and false trails may perplex and frustrate you. But it does what the theater’s meant to do: leave you with your sense of life’s wonder enhanced.
The Katona József Theatre’s production of Chekhov’s Ivanov, in contrast, left me feeling energized, but did little to enhance my sense of wonder. Chekhov’s early play, a half-spoofing attempt to reharmonize Hamlet in the key of the late Czarist-era inertia that so intrigued him, has fascinating aspects but, unlike his later great plays, never develops. Tamás Ascher’s production sets this tale of landed gentry haggling over money among the affluent nomenklatura of the Soviet bloc, circa 1960, where its talk of promissory notes and aristocratic marriages range very peculiarly. But the visual updating gave Ascher’s spectacularly gifted company the chance to carry Chekhov’s emotional outbursts and swatches of broad comedy to ferociously inventive, if sometimes maddeningly crude, excess. And it enabled Ascher to display Chekhov’s spiritual kinship with Pinter and other late-20th-century writers who shared his fascination for emotional barrenness and conversations full of blank spaces. In the midst of sequences full of yelling and extravagant capering, Ascher’s subtle, surprising treatment of climactic scenes like the ends of the play’s last two acts proved that, antics notwithstanding, his goal was to rouse the life within Chekhov’s play, not just use it as an excuse for gimmickry. If his taste was often arguable, his passion for the script was always clear.