The Comedie-Francaise production “Fables de La Fontaine” may be the closest Robert Wilson ever comes to making mainstream art. Yes, the piece quivers with the maverick craftsman’s always astonishing theatrical imagination, but it also tells complete stories — adapted from the fables of 17th century French poet Jean de la Fontaine — and clocks in at less than two hours. Theatergoers who want to savor Wilson’s aesthetic but aren’t ready for his famously lengthy and impressionistic works should find this production, which opens the Lincoln Center Festival, to be an excellent starter course.
Most of the 19 fables depicted here end with cruelty or death, yet Wilson and his gifted collaborators flood the stage with joy. The visual vibrancy and frequent humor in the scenes suggest everyone’s having a delightful time.
A good representation of how the show blends the avant-garde with the accessible is “The Small Cock, the Cat and the Young Mouse,” which tells the story of a wee rodent (Francoise Gillard) who mistakes a rooster for her enemy and a cat for her friend.
In true Wilson fashion, the scene bends space, rhythm and plot into an unusual form. Rather than show us the mouse actually interacting with the cock and the cat, Wilson stages the mouse relating the episode to her mother later on.
Mother mouse (Cecile Brune) is suspended halfway up the stage right wall, wearing gray ears and a long black dress, knitting from a massive ball of twine that sits on the floor beneath her. She has no facial expression as she listens, and her hands keep moving in a steady pace. Meanwhile, Young Mouse doesn’t speak for the first few moments she’s onstage. Instead, she stands in place and laughs a silly, high-pitched laugh while Michael Galasso’s jaunty music bounces beneath her.
But these images aren’t just random bits of stagecraft. They distill the essence of the fable. Young Mouse is a naive child who doesn’t understand danger, and her squeaky giggle reflects that just as effectively as her story about trying to befriend a pussycat. (Like the other scenes, the tale is told through narration and dialogue, spoken in French with English supertitles.)
The sight of the mouse’s mother floating far above her only underlines the distance between the innocent and the wise.
Meanwhile, at the back of the stage, we see evidence of the ensemble’s physical skill. Peeking through a floating square that may or may not be a window, the cat (Leonie Simaga), in an oversized furry mask, and the cock (Gerard Giroudon), in a whimsical feather suit, stand at attention. Their stillness is active, though, as their bodies hold taut, graceful poses.
Occasionally, Giroudon drags his foot in a slow imitation of a chicken scratch. It’s a tiny gesture that brings enormous laughs. Even in this elegant show, animals are still going to be animals.
That’s the irony of the entire production. They may excel at Wilson’s characteristic “slow walk” or turn their bodies into beautiful lines, but thesps also erupt with barnyard noises. Similarly, Moidele Bickele’s costumes and Kuno Schlegelmilch’s masks are sumptuous, but they also depict a gnat’s bulbous eyes and a spider’s gross, hairy legs.
So what should we make of our own irrepressible animal natures? In the final fable — a meeting between Ulysses (Laurent Stocker) and the goddess Circe (Celine Samie) — the production offers a rueful answer. Circe transforms Ulysses’ men into beasts, and they decide to stay that way, leaving their captain alone with his rational thought. In the haunting closing image, we see him frozen in agony as his creature-headed comrades waltz behind him. Striving for enlightenment over base pleasure, we’re told, will leave you in a company of one.
That sad message is beautifully delivered, and it makes a potent end to this intelligent, artful crowd-pleaser.