“The sleep of Reason,” said Goya, “produces monsters.” The sleep of aspiring artists, according to Ariane Mnouchkine, produces — well, everything. At least, that seems to be the premise of the fascinating new piece A Room in India (playing at the Park Avenue Armory through December 20), a collective creation by Paris’s Théâtre du Soleil, of which Mnouchkine is the founder and artistic director. Stretched across the vast expanse of the Armory’s Wade Thompson Drill Hall, the titular room seems, at least at the start, a clean, comfortable, and serenely quiet one. Only faint light trickles through its two rows of large shuttered windows; none comes from the globe-shaped fixtures suspended from its vaulted ceiling. Stage left, a woman lies asleep in a large bed covered with snowy-white sheets.
Then a phone rings. Still only half awake, the woman (Hélène Cinque) stumbles across the stage to answer it. She is, we learn, Cornélia, the earnest but semi-clueless assistant to a genius director who bears the ironically grandiose name of Constantine Lear. Cornélia, with the rest of the genius’s troupe, has been sent to a rural Indian town to study what is said to be the oldest extant form of theater, a part of their ongoing investigation of the origins and purpose of their art. But Lear himself is not with them, and his instructions about how to succeed come over Skype, severely garbled. He has been detained in Paris, apparently by a breakdown of some sort. Or is it a short-term commitment? Possibly neither, because a later phone call informs Cornélia that her mentor is in the local jail, under arrest for having climbed nude up a statue of Gandhi. Even more ominous than this potentially explosive international incident is a subsequent phone call informing her that the French government is investigating the company’s finances, since the costly state-funded trip to India has yet to show any results.
But all of these disheartening intrusions, like everything else in the piece, may or may not be simply a fragment of the dreams that beset poor Cornélia’s restless, anxiety-ridden attempt to sleep. They are the dreams — or, often enough, the nightmares — of a theater person eager to encompass the whole world in her vision of the stage: in effect, the dreams of Mnouchkine herself, and of her frequent collaborator, the writer Hélène Cixous, “in harmony with” whom the piece has been created. Mnouchkine is not an appropriator but a cultural omnivore, presiding over a polyglot company of Paris residents from all parts of the globe. Everything comes into her theater just as everything comes into beleaguered Cornélia’s dreams: kabuki, Shakespeare, Chekhov, old movies (the final bit is an elaborate riff on Chaplin’s last speech from The Great Dictator), social drama, melodrama, high tragedy, sketch comedy, and four elaborate sequences dramatizing a pair of stories from the Mahabharata, India’s national epic.
These latter episodes are played in a South Indian music-theater style about which everyone in New York’s theatrical press except me is an expert. Both focus, as much of the rest of Mnouchkine’s piece does, on the griefs facing women in a male-dominated world. They are performed in Tamil; the show, which has supertitles throughout, is as polyglot as the company: Cornélia’s chats with Shakespeare and Chekhov, both of whom turn up in person, are conducted in English and Russian respectively. Chekhov complains about master-directors (including Stanislavsky) lousing up his work, but puts in a plug for Milan’s Giorgio Strehler. Shakespeare, told that all Cornélia wants is to be a good metteur en scène (i.e., “director”), asks in perplexity, “What is a metteur en scène?” Sometimes the global politics that frequently invade the work are treated with the same sort of puckish comedy: One farcical sequence involves an attempt to shoot what is apparently an Islamic-extremist movie in the Arabian desert, brought to disaster because the lead actor keeps muffing his lines. Another, the work’s comic high point, shows a teleconference in which five Saudi sheikhs, seeking to raise their nation’s low rank in the U.N.’s list of countries that support female equality, ask for advice from two jovial officials of top-ranking Iceland, whose answers are, inevitably, of a kind guaranteed to dismay Saudi sheikhs.
The humor is both needful and mordant, because the world Cornélia dreams in is an extremely dangerous place; even the little village where her troupe has run aground turns out to be a battle zone, rife with Hindu-Muslim rivalries and with right-wing Hindu nationalists who take an ominous view of a guesthouse full of ethnically mixed, Westernized theater people. But that’s only the rippling surface of Cornélia’s nightmare. Terrifying images of assault, terrorism, and torture make their unexpected way into the evening’s densely woven fabric, as do the violent Daesh, those less-than-nice people known to us as ISIS. Mnouchkine isn’t afraid to make even them seem comically inept, but sight gags involving machine guns and explosions are still about machine guns and explosions, and the laugh gets stuck in the throat. At one point several large monkeys run wild in the room, as if to underscore the extent to which humanity, these days, is reverting to an apelike condition — only equipped, as apes aren’t, with weapons of mass destruction. And in a reminder of what our reversion is doing to the natural world, one company member urges Cornélia to make her play about the water shortages that are starting to cause wars across the globe; soon, perhaps only artists’ mental imagery will be fluid.
As always with Mnouchkine, the quality of the piece and its power are equally undeniable. Of the Théâtre du Soleil works that I’ve seen, I would frankly call this one of the less-satisfying ones. Its loose structure and predictable rhythm — a parade of events, each followed by an exit and a momentary lull — can have a slightly lulling effect. But you must take that sentence in context. Mnouchkine’s less-satisfying work is so far superior to the best our quotidian theaters can offer that every moment here is like a masterpiece: perfectly composed visually, perfectly executed musically and dramatically. Every member of her troupe seems to be exactly right for what he or she is called upon to do. If it is not as tautly assembled a world as her spellbinding Les Ephémères (2009), A Room in India has a buoyancy that, even in its darkest moments, suggests the freedom and fun of a great vaudeville or variety show. Instead of a cohesive work that builds toward a cumulative effect, it’s a surprise box full of unexpected pleasures and horrors — a wonderful, terrifying miniature world across which the possibilities of theatermaking and the many realms of the world we make theater about slide in succession, eternally chasing each other through our minds. It is an artist’s dream of a world, in which anything and everything can come to life.