“Le dernier caravanserail,” the epic work by Ariane Mnouchkine that her Paris-based company, Le Theater du Soleil, performed at Lincoln Center Festival in 2005, was a titanic theater piece depicting the global migration of war refugees uprooted from their homes. “Les Ephemeres,” while composed of domestic scenes set in modern-day France, is no less concerned with the fragile, transitory nature of human life and happiness. With the audience seated, arena-style, on both sides of a narrow strip of stage, scenes roll by on wheeled turntables, presenting snatches of life — happy, sad, brutish — that are quickly swept away to become part of the past.
The intimate story vignettes that flash, burn and flit by our eyes on what Mnouchkine calls “mobile chariots” reflect the collective contributions of the full ensemble, whose 50 performing members include 18 eerily beautiful children. Those with the strongest thigh muscles also push, pull and spin the wheeled platforms. Working under the eye of stage designer Everest Canto de Montserrat, members of the ensemble also contributed artifacts for the elaborately and exquisitely dressed sets.
The first set — of the childhood home that a young woman is forced to sell after the death of her mother — is dressed in full view of the audience, as if to show us how mechanically we accumulate the household artifacts that comfort us. One night and 29 scenes later, that same set is ritualistically struck, as if to show us how easy, and how inevitable, it is to lose the objects, as well as the people, that once defined our lives.
As in “Le dernier caravanserail,” themes of loss and abandonment through death, displacement or the absence of love are woven throughout the piece. This time, however, especially in the second of the two parts, there seem to be sparks of light in the form of kind souls who come forward to help some suffering stranger.
A pregnant friend with a house full of kids will find space for the traumatized child of a battered wife. A fastidious lab technician at a public health clinic will befriend the crazy old lady who thinks her tumor is a fetus. A sweet little girl will play board games and watch old movies with the lonely transvestite tormented by her classmates. Astonishingly, there is nothing the least bit sentimental about these moments of human contact. They are far too fragile and, as the title of the piece indicates, much too ephemeral.
The life stories don’t always interconnect; but when they do — often out of the blue and without comment — the effect can be electrifying. Jeanne Clement (an extraordinarily self-contained perf by Delphine Cottu), the depressed young woman who has to sell the house and the wonderful garden where she grew up, finds a buyer in a man who is ecstatic about the birth of his first child.
The emotional contrast between them is striking in itself. When we meet both characters again in part two, the happy father is wild with anger because his ex-wife is failing to honor his visiting rights to his beloved child. But in a bittersweet reversal, the grieving daughter has “found” her mother by tracking down the grandparents she never thought to ask her mother about — at the same time that her own daughter finds her way back to the wondrous old house and garden.
Too many of these connections and reversals would be too schematic, and Mnouchkine is far too strong a theatrical force to sway with that wind. So, many of the vignettes remain just that — brief moments of everyday life caught in glimpses as they roll by, swept away in the swift and ruthless passing of time. So pretty. So sad. So soon over.