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Gotham speaks ‘French’

Gallic series begins with 'Caravanserail' on July 17

PARIS — New York theatergoers had better start brushing up on their French.

On Sunday, July 17, Gotham plays host to the inaugural “Act French” series, an ambitious five-month season of more than 50 events featuring some of the top names in contemporary Gallic theater.

“Most foreigners think of French theater as people in wigs declaiming in verse,” says Denise Luccioni, artistic coordinator of the event. “We want to show the American public things they’ve never seen before.”

The program kicks off with Ariane Mnouchkine’s Theatre du Soleil performing its refugee-themed two-part epic “The Last Caravanserail” at the Lincoln Center Festival July 17-31.

Other highlights include Isabelle Huppert in a French translation of Sarah Kane’s “4:48 Psychosis,” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Marie-France Pisier in an English-lingo version of one-woman show “Liaison Transatlantique: Letters of Simone de Beauvoir to Nelson Algren” and Patrice Chereau reading Dostoyevsky’s “Notes From the Underground” at the New York Public Library.”Our theater is considered too abstract and cerebral, and that kind of thing doesn’t interest Americans. But this selection isn’t a government export of what France considers interesting. It has been put together with American tastes in mind.”

And while New York’s large French population will surely be lining up to attend, as they do the annual “Rendezvous With French Cinema” series, Gallic transplants are not the target audience.

“We won’t ban them,” says Luccioni, “but it would be a failure if only French people came.”

All French-lingo fare will play with English supertitles, while some works are being performed in English or a mix of French and English.

The event, which is targeting ticket sales of 100,000, does, of course, bear the stamp of French officialdom: It was jointly organized by the Assn. Francaise de l’Action Artistique, a government-funded body for the foreign promotion of Gallic arts, and the French Embassy in New York. But 80% of its E3 million- E4 million ($3.6 million-$4.8 million) budget, and most of the artistic decisionmaking, has come from the U.S.

Over the past two years, about a dozen American theater directors or independent producers were invited to France to cherrypick shows that would appeal to New York auds. Among them was Mark Russell, former artistic director of PS122, who teamed four plays with Gotham theaters, including new-generation playwright Philippe Quesne’s “The Itching of Wings.”

“You could say he was a guest curator. He knew what would please and how to convince theaters,” says Luccioni.

She also believes that a showcase in New York will help some of the more experimental work gain acceptance back home.

“In France, you have theater, which is a ‘noble art,’ and you have circus, which has become acceptable over the past 10-15 years, but other hybrid visual theater forms are looked down on. Being performed abroad under the ‘Act French’ banner should give them more credibility.”

The idea behind the Gallic season is also to strengthen links between the French and U.S. theater worlds — and to leave behind a lasting trace. “It is not only about the present,” says Luccioni. “We are also sowing seeds for the future.”

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