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Critic’s Notebook: Seeing Isabelle Huppert and Dimitris Papaioannou in Paris

Impressions from two outstanding Théâtre de la Ville productions: Robert Wilson’s "Mary Said What She Said" and the even more stunning "Since She," featuring Pina Bausch’s dancers.

“Do you miss Paris?”

I get that question a lot, but never know what to say. How could I not? The two years I spent in that splendid city covering international cinema for Variety changed my life.

“What do you miss most about Paris?”

That’s a tough one too. The booksellers on the sidewalk in front of my apartment? The dozen cinemas within a few blocks’ radius? The way the locals put down their phones and raise a glass when the work day ends? Paris taught me how to love; it taught me how to live.

The real question — the one I ask myself — isn’t what I miss, but what I missed out on during the time I was fortunate enough to call Paris home. That’s where my regret really lies. I had no idea it would be so short. There’s so much I took for granted, so many things I never got around to doing.

For example, I adore Isabelle Huppert, who acted often on the Paris stage, but I never witnessed one of her plays. I must have seen a hundred movies when I lived in Paris, but never once attended a dance performance.

This is why I arranged a small detour through the city on my way back from my latest film festival trip — to Karlovy Vary, in the Czech Republic — because it meant that I could catch closing night of Huppert in “Mary Said What She Said” at the Éspace Cardin on Saturday night and, two days later, attend the first performance of modern dance innovator Dimitris Papaioannou’s latest spectacle, “Since She,” at La Villette, a massive converted slaughterhouse on the other side of town.

It would be hard to overestimate my excitement, though it would be one hell of an understatement to say that I was prepared for either of these events.

A high-concept reunion between Huppert and avant-garde director Robert Wilson (with whom she did “Orlando” a quarter century earlier), “Mary Said What She Said” is an abstract, 80-minute monologue in which Huppert plays Mary Queen of Scots, condemned for treason but convinced of her own innocence, spiraling deeper into a state of delusion as her execution approaches.

Huppert has been performing “Mary Said” for six weeks straight, reciting the same text — not quite nonsense, but assembled in such a way that making sense hardly seems to be playwright Darryl Pinckney’s first priority — night after night, to the point that it now seems almost like a mantra. The words are Mary’s own, drawn from her letters, but far from credible: She paints herself as a victim when in fact she was a pawn, a woman given a domain she didn’t want (Scotland), betrayed by the man she did (James, Earl of Bothwell).

Mary Stuart was raised at the French court, married the Dauphin and lived there until his death, so it doesn’t seem unreasonable that the monologue should be performed in French. The score — composed for the occasion by the great Ludovico Einaudi, whose “Seven Days Walking” project represents the musical release of the year, in my book — blasts at a level louder than Huppert’s voice as the actress enters the space and takes her position at the center of the giant white screen.

Borrowed from Chinese opera, this stark, silhouette-driven staging has become a signature of Wilson’s. Here, with head held high atop a stiff black collar, her ivory shoulders bare, Huppert’s Mary seems already to have been decapitated. Now she’s back, an agitated phantom, to explain herself.

At first, Huppert stands with her back to the audience, ever so slowly rotating like some kind of carved figure, then inching forward on invisible feet as the lighting fluctuates behind her. During this long, slow glide, practically the only detectable movement — apart from the slightest bend of her arm here or there — has been Huppert’s lips, a blood red slash across the ghostly white mask of the actress’s face.

She speaks the initial passages slowly, then accelerates to an almost unreasonable pace, punctuating her words with a mock cackle. At one point, a precise green spotlight hits her face, transforming her for an instant into the Wicked Witch of the West. Once Huppert reaches the front of the stage, things become more aerobic, but no less weird, as her Mary begins to dance: courtly little twirls at first, followed by a kind of ecstatic trotting, up and down the stage in diagonal lines, a puppet on a string, a demon possessed.

Huppert has an audacity unparalleled among actresses, but also a very specific range, and studying her over the years, I’ve found that dance is not her forte. There is something cold and slightly inhuman about Huppert’s most iconic roles (if you’re unfamiliar with her edgy oeuvre, I recommend you start with “Elle” and work your way up to “The Piano Teacher”) — a mechanical quality that makes such movement look like exercise when she attempts it, something unnatural and rehearsed. To watch the choreography of this show is to witness an actress manipulated by her director, trusting entirely in his genius, at the expense of her own instincts.

I am not confident enough in my abilities as a theater critic to evaluate this show. I’ve never seen anything else quite like it, and afterward, I’m not sure I learned nor understood anything more about Mary Queen of Scots from the experience. And yet, it opened another window into the abilities of this incredible woman — not Mary, the onetime queen of Scotland, but Isabelle, the reigning queen of her craft.

There are certain actors about whom it’s said we would watch them read the phone book. With “Mary Said What She Said,” it feels as if Huppert has memorized it, dictating it back to us with astonishing precision — for Einaudi’s score requires that Pinckney’s text be delivered with exactly the right timing, while at other times, she utters three times a key phrase into a brief silence left by a recording of her own voice.

Demanding and no doubt exhausting, it’s an Olympian feat of acting, for which she made four curtain calls, bowing extravagantly as the crowd bathed her in applause — a crowd that seemed, by an informal survey made in the lobby beforehand, to be made up largely of Francophilic Anglophones (I was impressed to spot Jessica Chastain among them, come to pay her respects to a fellow redhead). From here, she goes on tour, performing “Mary Said” across Europe until at least late fall.

How much did the rapturous closing-night audience understand? Hard to say. I had requested the English version of Pinckney’s monologue in advance, read it through, printed it out, and consulted it occasionally (one advantage of Wilson’s over-lit approach), and still the meaning eludes me. But I’m glad I saw what I saw: a master actress who rises to the kind of challenge that would intimidate so many of her peers. And so what if she can’t dance? That’s what attending Dimitris Papaioannou’s “Since She” was about.

My great regret of 2019 has been missing the Greek choreographer’s U.S. debut: a one-night performance of “The Great Tamer” at UCLA’s Royce Hall in January. Several friends who attended made it sound like a life-changing experience, and between their raves and a three-minute montage of surrealist tableaux that appears on Papaioannou’s site — scenes that look like Magritte paintings come to life, with an intriguing amount of nudity sprinkled throughout — I resolved to fly somewhere I could see his work for myself. (You needn’t make the same commitment, since he will bring “Since She” to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in November.)

A unique collaboration between Papaioannou and Pina Bausch’s company, the Tanztheater Wuppertal, “Since She” pays homage to the late legend’s oeuvre while inventing many original situations custom tailored to the dancers’ individual physiques and abilities. Before the house lights have even dimmed, the show brings out the same chairs Bausch’s dancers knocked against in “Café Müller,” used here as makeshift steppingstones to cross the vast black ocean of an empty stage — empty, that is, except for a mountain of stacked foam pads.

Dressed in loose-fitting black business attire, the cast of 17 creates a snaking path from stage left to right, lifting the rearmost chairs above their heads and passing them forward as they go. This ragged line of dancers suggests a trail of human ants, clumsily improvising their way into the unknown — although, of course, each wobble and bob has been worked out meticulously in advance.

Papaioannou isn’t a conventional choreographer, which was evident to anyone who saw his work on the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. I didn’t, and therefore wasn’t sure what to expect from this show. I find creativity to be most exciting when it occurs beyond the reaches of my imagination — which is to say, I couldn’t have come up with the same ideas on my own — and that’s what makes Papaioannou such a visionary.

His approach to dance is based neither in narrative nor in classical notions of coordination and movement. Rather, he uses the art of stagecraft and pantomime to appeal directly to the id. Some scenes seem to originate from the subconscious, speaking to us in the logic of dreams. Others amount to playful acts of illusion — magic tricks that take minimal advantage of the dancers’ training, and make no effort to disguise how they’re accomplished, as when someone appears to saw off the head of a fellow dancer, who steps forward, the rest of his body masked in black.

This same technique of body-effacing costumes allows other characters to sprout multiple limbs, like the woman in the cardboard dress who struts around on 10 legs. It’s refreshing that Papaioannou is not afraid of humor, and even invites laughter at moments that could otherwise be uncomfortable. For example, the first time one of his dancers appears nude, those around him defuse the tension by playing peekaboo with his most intimate parts. Suddenly ashamed, the man proceeds to dress himself in a corner — whereas others are gradually unwrapped, or else have their clothes aggressively ripped from their bodies.

In “Since She,” the scenes are simple, intuitive, but rarely appear one at a time. Instead, Papaioannou uses the stage the way Hieronymus Bosch does the canvas, presenting a collection of vaguely nightmarish vignettes at once, and allowing us to choose where to focus our attention. In one absurdist sketch, an octopus-lady chef prepares a dish in her kitchen, while a man carries a phallic sausage like an offering across the stage, to be hacked to bits. Then she climbs on the counter, hikes up her skirt and lays an egg into the skillet, scrambling it all into an omelet to be fed to her emasculated slave, now submissive on all fours.

One has to laugh at a scene like that, though others spark far different emotions, such as the beautiful sequence in which a woman wearing a dress made of tissue appears to levitate while a trio of men fan the air around her, as if causing her to float. When they stop, she appears to crumple, like a plastic bag carried by a gust of wind. Papaioannou often puts one man or one woman at the center of a crowd composed of the opposite gender — a symbol of temptation, lust, objectification and desire. A costume made of flip sequins (all the rage with kids these days) allows men to run their hands up a demon-masked lady in a black dress, “painting” her body gold with each caress.

In all these ways, “Since She” is as an exploration of the futility and frustration of the human experience. Images of Sisyphus echo throughout the piece: a woman drags a tree uphill, others row boats (inverted tables, really) across seas of cardboard tubes. These same tubes occasionally serve as limbs, first for a clownlike character who struggles to walk with them propped inside his clothes and later, as arm extensions for a ghoulish creature who lurches around, bells dangling from an invisible belt, his flesh exposed and stark white under the spotlight (which a dancer manually positions onstage).

Audiences could attempt a literal reading of Papaioannou’s piece — and a few who did seemed frustrated by the experience — but I found it best to surrender to the imagery, curious to see where the dream would take me. In a way, this was a lesson for “Mary Said What She Said” and “Since She” alike. In cinema, I’m accustomed to being able to interpret what I’m watching, whereas with dance and avant-garde theater, the goal is to convey a feeling that words and images alone can’t articulate.

Both shows were organized by the Théâtre de la Ville, a gorgeous Haussmanian theater in the heart of Paris, under reconstruction at the moment. As a result, the organization has partnered with venues around town to host its 2018-19 season, which gave me a chance to sample the kind of offerings I’d never found time to attend while living in the city. The takeaway for me is clear: not only that anyone planning to visit Paris owes it to themselves to investigate what’s onstage but that the Théâtre de la Ville — which hosts productions as essential and diverse as these — is perhaps the best place to start.

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