Le Cirque Imaginaire

at the Blackstone Theatre

Terre promise/Terra promessa

Theatre de la Marmaille and Teatro dell’Angolo

at the Josephine Louis Theater

Cierren las puertas!

Theatre Company of the University of Veracruz

at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum and the UIC Theater

In the beginning was not the word–it was the image. Mountains arrived aeons before there were symbols for them. This priority of things over thought was also apparent in the creation of drama–the gods were mimed in ritual before they were addressed in person. That priority still holds. Images speak when words fail; they crystallize discoveries that evaporate if literally stated. So when stage pictures alone carry the weight of meaning, what’s revealed feels strangely pure.

An international theater festival for mainly English-speaking audiences obviously wants to find the most direct dramatic currency possible; any show that transcends language is a prize. Two recent, very visual entries in the International Theatre Festival, Le Cirque Imaginaire and Terre promise/Terra promessa, spoke through props and symbols, delivering their respectively hilarious and mysterious goods viscerally and without the mediation of language. (Of course the children in the audience loved them from the start–but they were not alone.)

A third presentation, Cierren las puertas!, used words (and musical notes), but it also showed how much the emotional thrust of a play comes through sound rather than content, especially when it’s in a foreign language. But then in every tongue we pick up feeling much more quickly and fully than meaning and message.

Le Cirque Imaginaire is a labor of love from a deft duo, Victoria Chaplin (third daughter of the great Charlie) and her husband Jean-Baptiste Thierree. This homey spectacle, with its menagerie of untamed ducks, rabbits, and doves and its grab bag of unashamedly hokey magic tricks, is its own excuse for being: “Having no explanation to give, no theory or defense, no ideology to promote, no anecdote to tell, and no confidence to reveal, we just content ourselves with putting on the show.”

As the title hints, Le Cirque Imaginaire enlisted a collective imagination. Uncloyingly sweet and as spontaneous as a child’s first stab at make-believe, Le Cirque Imaginaire substituted dexterous ingenuity for the usual three-ring Barnum glitz; in its magic circle, Thierree’s inspired clowning was combined with Chaplin’s heart-stopping acrobatics and mime work–all enhanced by enchantingly clever props, masks, and costumes. Among these were a Dumbo-like elephant on stilts that delicately cavorted above a scurrying mouse, a skeleton that rode on the back of a tandem bike with a skeleton dog, and a man who carried his head on his back like a parcel. (Fellini would love this froth.)

Chaplin, who would be a star in any circus, was modesty itself. Slyly smiling, she walked a tightrope with all the joy of a first success, then, encouraged by the ease of it, did a split and a jig. Later, seeming to delight in our ignorance of the risks, she gracefully swung on a slack rope high above the audience, perilously dangling from wrist, neck, and ankles.

Back on earth she played Bach on a high-pitched saw and turned herself into an elaborate one-person orchestra with dangling chimes and tinkling glasses. Chaplin’s most dazzling bit came when she created from different sizes of brightly hued silk fans a menagerie of birds, insects, and flowers–each effect stunningly right and all too brief.

Looking like Benny Hill at his most impishly perverse, Thierree specialized in spoofing his own trickery; he toted out half a dozen suitcases from which he extracted silly stuff, such as the fake arrow he used to impersonate Saint Sebastian or the series of funny fish he used to illustrate an aquatic tragedy. Dressed in matching zebra suit and valise, Thierree hysterically signaled a toy zebra to do a trick–and the stuffed animal dutifully flopped over. In another French delicacy, Thierree popped soap bubbles as he delicately struck a hidden bell.

A crafty illusionist, Thierree also released doves from a balloon, rabbits from a seemingly sealed box, and a duck from a flaming pot. He and Chaplin made music seraphically, while four hammy ducks quacked contentedly and a fat rabbit wandered dazedly about. In a more conventional stunt, dividing his wife into horizontal sections, Thierree forgot where to insert a missing anatomical piece–and sheepishly wheeled off the “remains.” (Penn and Teller couldn’t have played it more neatly; like them, Thierree loves to give away his tricks.) Finally he joined Chaplin to make a pair of gaudy, twirling jellyfish, and he was not above flopping face first as he tried to imitate her cartwheel. (Their two children, James and Aurelia, also joined the fun.)

Nothing pretentious here, no tumbling chandeliers or underground lakes–just the fun of royally putting on the audience and watching them buy it over and over. Less is more is circus.

If Le Cirque Imaginaire was headed for minimalism, Terre promise/Terra promessa, a wordless and improvised joint effort by Montreal’s Theatre de la Marmaille and Turin’s Teatro dell’Angolo, achieved it–with Zenlike simplicity and in less than an hour. It also was the closest nonverbal equivalent I’ve seen to T.S. Eliot’s “objective correlative,” the term he gave any potent poetic image that fixes to itself the emotions associated with an object. Here the objective correlative was a rock.

In Terre promise the transatlantic troupes focused on a small piece of the “promised land” (earth as it moved across the millennia). The curtain was fully raised only twice and remained thigh high for most of the play, revealing only what the four actors wanted. Sand trickled onto the stage to depict the earth’s formation. Disembodied hands shaped that sand into miniature mountains. Bushes were planted that four feet trampled. Finally, another pair of hands rolled a large flat stone onto the stage. (Was God planting props?)

This rock became a touchstone for events: a man grinding meal, a fisherman using it as a whetstone, a soldier dying over it, a woman drying her laundry on it, a beggar kindling a fire on it, a lover at a beach carving a heart on its scratchy surface to win back his lady. A kind of wordless witness, it symbolized both continuity and change–an inorganic archetype. When grass was sown and the rock became an obstacle, it was hurled into a lake, from which, in a marvelous undersea depiction full of bubbles and fish, it was retrieved by frogmen. Scientists who sensed its worth put the stone on exhibit to yield more silent, fragile testimony from this time traveler. Geological blank became cultural artifact and, by the end, a promissory note for the planet’s survival. An objective correlative could ask no more.

Michel Robidoux’ synthesizer score, which formed a continuous and supple environmental backdrop, combined nature (the sounds of sea and wind) and culture (muted allusions to Verdi and others); these sounds blended with the cryptic images that were beautifully lit from the side and behind to yield a disarming magic that outweighed any need to explain it. The work’s minimal performance-art pictures and movements triggered reactions that words just clutter with detail. Austerity was essential to this eloquent microcosm.

In distinct contrast, the U.S. debut production of the Theatre Company of the University of Veracruz, Cierren las puertas! (“Close the doors!”), was a glorious case of Mexican maximalism–bursting with hokey melodrama, brighter, louder, and much more soap-operatic than life. It was also the warmest festival import since the Comediants’ Ale; fittingly so, since both works were inspired by pageantry, folklore, and audience participation.

The characters are taken from (and dressed like) those in la loteria, a bingolike game played at fairs and festivals; here the “real” characters echo the game’s figures as life will art. Set in a forbidden palenque (an arena for cockfights), Victor Hugo Rascon Banda’s play takes its name from the moment when all bets are made and the room is sealed to prevent a wagerer from walking out on a debt. Here the debt is paid in vengeance–the murder of Andres Santana, the arrogant padron who operates this illegal operation, by the son and daughter of the man he murdered and the wife he stole. (These ruthless siblings are the Mexican version of Orestes and Electra.)

Viewed through la loteria, the clash is even simpler: good versus evil, the Devil versus the Brave One, with mere chance determining the outcome. For however the characters bluster and orate, the play’s ironic context–a game of chance–makes it clear that fate deals the cards and cuts off life.

In director Enrique Pineda’s good-hearted communal spectacle, none of this felt grim or forced; tragedy flowed from frolic as combustibly as in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. The 16 cunningly cast members of the troupe inhabit such sharp-edged stereotypes as a horny drunkard, a smart-mouthed cantina operator, and a wryly fatalistic mermaid–plunging into the flamboyant caricatures with accurate abandon.

The play peaked in a fiesta of sappy songs. Unleashing them were two marvelous belters: Juana Maria Garza, a leather-lunged mamacita, and Jenny Zebadua, who pulsed with the frustrated fervor of a cabaret singer stuck in the sticks.

Overriding the exuberance of this gaudy folk tragedy is its will to engage an audience. The players confided in the crowd, passed beer around, took bets in peso notes on the supposedly simulated cockfights–in short, got us so immersed in the doings that the final shoot-out came off as one more diversion, of no more cosmic significance than the next bet. When the rock in Terre promise was thrown into the sea, you felt the loss much more.