Compagnie Philippe Genty

International Theatre Festival

at Steppenwolf Theatre

A little man in a trench coat and fedora shoots heavenward like a balloon, gets pulled up short by his string, and is hauled in by another, larger version of himself. A huge gray blob with tentacles like arms gives birth to a naked man. Worms emerge from an undulating moonscape, kiss, and then are stalked by a goose. A giantess cuts off the head of a Popsicle-sized man, then scoops out his insides with a spoon and eats them.

That’s just a little of what you see in Derives (Driftings), a wordless 90-minute production staged last week for the International Theatre Festival by the French Compagnie Philippe Genty. Now 31 years old, the company relies on illusion–achieved through puppetry, careful lighting and costuming, and ingenious props–to create a series of dreamlike images. Director Genty, collaborating with choreographer Mary Underwood and performers Pascal Blaison, Christian Carrignon, Katy Deville, Gabriel Guimard, and Eric De Sarria, has devised a clever, even modestly adventurous show that may make us laugh out loud in surprise, pleasure, or discomfort. But it won’t make us cry, because at every turn Derives undermines sympathetic identification with the creatures we see onstage. And though it has a Beckett-like feel, it never transcends its own solipsism the way Beckett’s work does.

There’s something childlike as well as dreamlike about Derives, the way it frees the imagination, indulges instincts, and eliminates logic. One scene drifts into another, often without theatrical cues; instead changes in the lighting and music happen mid-scene. The images themselves have dreamlike associations. The way the smoke in the very first image, a tiny train chugging across the stage, drifts is repeated in various kinds of floating creatures throughout: angels, hummingbirds, fish, flying people, bugs stroking across water. Strings of various kinds seem important, perhaps because they anchor things that might otherwise drift away: the cords tied to balloons, the filaments in a spiderweb, and by association the wires used to manipulate marionettes. And if shows can represent Freudian phases, this one’s definitely oral: it features lots of tongues, weird noises, sucking, licking, kissing, and mastication.

Yet there’s also something predictable about it all. The oral behavior, predictably, gives Derives an infantile tone. Most of the human movement, predictably, drifts about the stage, the performers’ feet twiddling under stiff floor-length costumes (a variety of movement that made me miss the palpable muscularity of dance). But it may be too that a surreal landscape needs easily recognizable elements–something to grab onto amid the chaos.

That’s the charitable explanation for the sexual stereotypes in Derives, which characterizes women as promiscuous, sexually aggressive predators. The first clear “woman” we see is a redheaded puppet about half human size; she slinks her way about the stage, snuggling up to and kissing the various men, including a male puppet her size. Eventually she’s stripped and caressed by all the men and has sex with the reluctant male puppet, who remains clothed and ends up in a crumpled heap, apparently sucked dry. Later, the naked man is born from the tentacled creature; a puppet spider on a thread drops down next to him and scampers over his head, then a woman appears–clearly the spider’s human representative–and proceeds to surround the man with stretchy filaments like a web. The following section features the giantess, whose deformed proportions resemble those of the redheaded puppet; she has huge hips and thighs, above which perch her breasts, head, and skinny arms, almost afterthoughts. She destroys cities, sinks ships, shoots down planes, and skewers little men and eats them. Eventually she appears to have sex with a man just about big enough to be her baby or her dildo; he disappears “inside.” Of course you could call all these negative images of women archetypes–the name given them by male intellectuals who wish to legitimize their own prejudices and fears. But to me they’re just creepy, unsurprising stereotypes.

By far the creepiest and most original thing about Derives is the way it blurs the distinction between puppets and real human beings. Of course puppet shows anthropomorphize the objects onstage, but Derives goes further: not only are the puppets humanlike, the humans are puppetlike. The first puppet we see is so lifelike we think it’s a real man; when a genuine human being comes on, he moves so like a puppet we forget he lives and breathes. Moreover, puppets rather than human beings are often the locus of emotion. When the redheaded female puppet conducts her indiscriminate seduction, it’s the shy male puppet who seems most affected: while the real men hoist her up and caress her in a kind of gang grope, the male puppet cowers in their shadows, repulsed or afraid.

What’s most horrifying about the shifting gestalts in Derives is that the manipulation essential to puppetry seems to carry over into the human realm. As soon as the blob gives birth to the naked man she invades him, sticking her fingers into his ears and mouth, which she stretches into a foolish grimace. Later a man collapses like a balloon that’s had the air let out of it. It’s equally horrifying when the puppets refuse to be manipulated–it’s like a bad dream when the little guy in the trench coat won’t stay put in the suitcase but keeps springing out. And then there’s what I think of as the “Mr. Bill Syndrome”–the hysterical way we want to laugh or cry when puppets are tortured or “hurt,” as when one of these leaps headfirst out of a suitcase held high, emitting a tiny scream.

The collaborators seem to recognize the power of these horrifying identifications between people and puppets in the show’s climactic scene, when a human couple and an identical puppet couple meet, separate, and shift partners–manipulated almost entirely by several men in dark suits and white shoes wielding hand-held spotlights. But though the scene suggests a film shoot or a police investigation, it doesn’t have the satiric bite or metaphysical horror it should. Instead it’s filled with romantic cliches, and the mood seems whimsical, almost sentimental. Though the events have a certain interest, they’re not affecting.

How could they be? The rest of the show has been devoted to undercutting any assumptions that what we see onstage is “real.” Derives both creates illusions and destroys them: puppets are revealed to be humans, who are revealed to be puppets, and so on. And once I feel uncomfortable about identifying with the French kiss between two hunks of papier-mache banging up against each other, two real people pressing their lips and tongues together are going to be suspect, too. What are they to me? Two actors manipulated by a director. A powerful theatrical experience breaks down the boundaries between our own existence, the life onstage, and the lives of the people in the audience around us. And Derives keeps us, with the greatest authority and charm, in our own solipsistic little boxes.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Florian Tiedje.