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Children of Paradise: Shooting a Dream

This, for the most part, is "Children of Paradise" lost.

This, for the most part, is “Children of Paradise” lost.

The production, by Minneapolis’ Theater de la Jeune Lune (Theater of the New Moon), combines staged scenes from the French screen classic with new ones dramatizing the story of its 1943-44 filming during the Nazi occupation of France. It’s a valiant attempt to portray the parallels and ironies of a complex situation that juxtaposed the bright apex of creative collaboration with the dark nadir of political collaboration.

Given more skillful directing and acting, the enterprise might have some chance. With this troupe, the few successes get obscured in a wearying mishmash that makes the 3 1/2-hour play seem as interminable as the slightly shorter film seems rapid.

“Children of Paradise,” directed by Marcel Carne and written by Jacques Prevert, offers a rich, layered 19th-century story of ill-fated love. It centers on Garance, a lovely and loose model, and three men who love her, each in his own way. Based on historical figures, they are Baptiste, a great French mime; Frederick, a superb actor; and Pierre-Francois, a thief and killer.

Their destinies converge and entwine in a sweet-sad epic, beautifully photographed and exquisitely acted.

“Shooting the Dream” doesn’t add much — and may even subtract, if the play’s failures discourage anyone from seeing the film.

Those not familiar with the movie may still be able to understand this play, but they face a strong challenge. And they’ll definitely miss much of the significance in the “real life” scenes that use the film’s dialogue verbatim.

As the movie proceeds — the play, of course, has it filmed unrealistically sequentially so it will make at least some sense — the cast and crew carry out their little dramas typifying the traumas of the time.

The basic trouble here is too much scope. Trying to mix a coherent version of the film with the stories of a dozen or so individuals leaves little room for scenes that develop character and depth. And those that attempt it usually come off as isolated and contrived.

Most damaging of all, this kind of acting-within-acting venture — difficult even for experienced performers — is way beyond the ability of this young company. Only a couple of performances — Dominique Serrand as Carne, Robert Rosen as Baptiste — approach adequacy, and most — like Steven Epp as the randy Frederick — verge on burlesque.

Felicity Jones makes Arletty, as Garance and otherwise, speak in a nasal, whiny drawl that’s apparently supposed to sound cynical and world-weary. Instead it sounds gratingly like Theater 101.

The cleverest move of director-coscripter Dominique Serrand is to open the play outdoors, with the audience crowded in at the theater’s loading dock. The cast weaves through the crowd, playing scenes on platforms and even up a tree. Then the audience files inside, and the gloom begins.

Vincent Gracieux is credited with scenography, an apt word since his ingenious sets get whirled and reconfigured so often that their movement is as important as their design. Trina Mrnak meets the challenge of the wide-ranging costumes, and Chandler Poling’s music proves generally more stirring than the script.

Children of Paradise: Shooting a Dream

(Mandell Weiss Theater, La Jolla; 492 seats; $ 30 top)

  • Production: La Jolla Playhouse and Theater de la Jeune Lune present a drama in two acts by Steven Epp, Felicity Jones, Dominique Serrand and Paul Webb, based on the work of Marcel Carne and Jacques Prevert. Director, Dominique Serrand; scenography, Vincent Gracieux; costume design, Trina Mrnak.
  • Crew: Lighting, Frederic Desbois; music, Chandler Poling. Opened, reviewed May 16, 1993; runs through June 13.
  • Cast: Cast: Michael Collins, Sarah Corzatt, Barbara Berbovitz Desbois, John Clark Donahue, Darcey Engen, Steven Epp, Laura Esping, Vincent Gracieux, Nancy Hogetvedt, Aimee Jacobson, Eric Jensen, Felicity Jones, Ben Kernan, Angie Lewis, Daniel Nelson, Robert Rosen, Danny Schmitz, Charles Schuminski, Luverne Seifert, Dominique Serrand, Rachel Wapnick.
  • Music By: