The epic sweep of this two-part play cycle — constructed from individual stories of war refugees throughout the modern world — brilliantly displays the forthright agitprop style of director Ariane Mnouchkine and her Paris-based Theatre du Soleil. As culled from the writings and recollections of this homeless populace and performed by a huge multinational cast speaking some two dozen languages, the sprawling piece depicts the wrenching displacement of people uprooted by war and cast adrift in a world ill-prepared (and shockingly resistant) to absorb them.
Surprising for a piece inspired by one of the great stories of all time, Homer’s “Odyssey,” this six-hour marathon (which can be taken in, but much less effectively, in its two separate parts, “The Cruel River” and “Origins and Destinies”) pays little mind to the art of conventional storytelling. It is Mnouchkine’s intention, rather, to plunge the spectator into the visceral and emotional experience of being homeless and on the run in a savage world.
Consequently, rather than spinning sharply defined multiple narratives that present coherent minidramas about handpicked subjects, the director employs mass movement to create the chaos and confusion — not to mention the mortal danger — that is the universal refugee experience.
Rolling carts that transport the displaced to and from their temporary places of refuge are the central, indelible image for the existential nightmare of their lives. As waves of people are hurtled across the vast stage on their little carts, in global migrations originating in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, identities are blurred and even lost in the geographical disorientation that is the first step in the process of dehumanization that Mnouchkine wants the aud to feel for itself.
Spectators are immediately grabbed by striking images of water crossings that open both parts of this collectively created piece. To the roaring sounds of a storm at sea, refugees on both sides of a treacherous divide navigate the first crossing by clinging to a rope strung across a narrow footbridge. In the crossing that opens the second section, the hopes of refugees braving fierce ocean waters in a fragile craft are dashed by a military air rescue that turns out to be something else entirely.
Although identified in the program as taking place in Central Asia and, later, off the coast of Australia, these dangerous events could be set anywhere. In Theatre du Soleil’s elemental design language, the waters that divide nations and continents are dramatically presented by an enormous sheet of undulating gray silk that fills the entire stage of the Damrosch Park tent. Although hardly a high-tech staging device, this familiar staple of experimental theater design has rarely been used so effectively.
Equally harrowing, although more realistically conveyed by chain-link fences and blinding industrial lighting, are the border crossings on the railroad track of the international train that connects France to England. The tiny French village of Sangatte is where refugees mainly from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan gather to hop the train on its last stop before crossing the English Channel. The clandestine spot is a kind of purgatory for desperate people at the mercy of smugglers who rob them blind, or exact harsher terms of sexual slavery of pretty young women from Baltic nations who dare the perilous journey alone.
Only gradually do certain figures emerge as individuals from the 60-some fragments comprising this montage of subjects and mosaic of suffering. These tales were painstakingly gathered over a period of years by Mnouchkine and members of her company in their travels to refugee camps in France, Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia. There’s the young Iranian, met at the French Red Cross refugee camp at Sangatte, who lost his leg in an aborted attempt to catch the channel train; the devoted lovers viciously punished for licentiousness by the Taliban vice squad in Afghanistan; the Russian girl pressed into prostitution by the smuggler who keeps robbing her of her passage money.
These and other faces — along with the disembodied voices heard keening for their lost homes and missing loved ones –take on recognizable identities over multiple scenes chopped up and dispersed throughout both parts of the epic. Had it been Mnouchkine’s intention to present these fragmented vignettes as parts of a cohesive whole, the director might have pursued a more stringent narrative line. Instead, she consistently drops one dramatic thread to pick up another, not to frustrate the spectators (although one does wonder if that couple at the Red Cross camp in Sangatte stayed together or whether that well-spoken Iraqi ever made it past his Australian judge) but to pursue the sense of common humanity that binds this huge piece together.
Besides, if one has patience, some (but by no means all) of these lives do take on coherence.
Nonetheless, something goes missing within this fragmented style of storytelling. While part two of the piece purports to take us to the “Origins and Destinies” of the refugees we have met and come to care about in these stories, there is no definitive reckoning about the fate of these desperate people.
Missing, too, is the sense of immediacy that comes from feeling what we are seeing onstage is actually happening somewhere right now. Life cycles that originate in Afghanistan begin with the Taliban in power, but fail to comment on the new government. Stories about families persecuted in Iraq under Saddam Hussein are not picked up after the fall of that dictator. In fact, it is amazing to realize the presence of foreign powers in these lands is largely ignored, or only obliquely alluded to.
Undoubtedly, Mnouchkine would say there are no answers and resolutions in a world that refuses to acknowledge such human misery and makes such imperfect efforts to restore what was lost. Indeed, like its ancient Greek model, “Le Dernier Caravanserail” is really about the never-ending search for a homeland so changed by war that it is lost forever.
Taken in pieces, this is devastating theater. In deliberately refusing to put the pieces together, Mnouchkine is surely leaving that job up to us.