Wednesday, February 21, 2018

163 (2017-2018): Review: RETURNING TO REIMS (seen February 20, 2018)

"Documentary Theatre"

Once again, a production forces us to ask the question, what is theatre? Or, what is a play? Theatre is a shapeshifter and its definition is constantly changing. You can, for example, have theatre without the conventional elements of actors, sets, theatres, scripts, and so on. 

Nina Hoss, Bush Moukarzel. Photo: Arno Declair.
All of these elements are present, however, in Returning to Reims, now making its American debut at St. Ann’s Warehouse (following its world premiere in Manchester, UK, and a production in Berlin), which nonetheless expands a few theatrical boundaries and gives a new twist to the meaning of documentary theatre.
Nina Hoss. Photo: Arno Declair.
Returning to Reims (Retour à Reims) is an adaptation of the 2009 memoir of that name (English version 2013) by French philosopher Didier Eribon. Director Thomas Ostermeier, of the renowned Schaubühne Berlin, who presumably did the uncredited adaptation, has set the play in an expansive recording studio (designed by Nina Wetzel) where the actress Katy (Nina Hoss, Homeland, Phoenix) has been hired to voice Eribon’s first-person narrative for a documentary directed by Paul (Bush Moukarzel), a filmmaker. 

Perhaps 60 percent of the play shows the actress seated on a stool at center, reading Didier’s words, as a large, overhead screen—seen only by us—presents the rather artfully compiled documentary (created by Ostermeier and Sébastien Dupouey), with a haunting score by Nils Ostendorf. Meanwhile, the recording is monitored from a booth by the filmmaker and sound technician/studio owner Tony (Ali Gadema).
Nina Hoss, Ali Gadema. Photo: Arno Declair.
The rest of the stage time is occupied with discussions between Katy and Paul over the script’s political dimensions (along with systemic evil, conspiracy theories, etc.), and with the technician performing a politically charged rap song he wrote.

The song breaks the fourth wall, for some unexplained reason, allowing for additional such intrusions—as when Paul asks communists in the audience to raise their hands—that destroy the realistic world previously established.
Bush Moukarzel, Nina Hoss, Ali Gadema. Photo: Arno Declair.
Subtextual political connotations—including “processes of domination”—color all the characters’ interactions so perhaps this is somehow intended to include the audience in that realm.

The conclusion, devised so as to provide the actress’s richly personal perspective, offers home videos of Katy/Hoss’s own father, a communist trade unionist who lost faith in his ideology, turned Green Party activist and did humanitarian work for the indigenous people of the Brazilian rain forest (where we see a much younger Hoss having her face painted by a tribesman). This, we’re perhaps supposed to imagine, is intended as an alternative attitude toward the demoralizing forces of globalization, capitalism, and monopolization roiling the landscape.
Bush Moukarzel, Nina Hoss, Ali Gadema. Photo: Arno Declair.
The recording occurs in two scenes, a week apart, during the play’s uninterrupted (except for a brief blackout) two hours. The Eribon story, supported by considerable documentary footage from his life and times, recounts his feelings as a gay, progressive, intellectual from a poor, working-class family in the provincial city of Reims when, following his homophobic father’s death, he returns to visit his mother. Eribon, who considers himself a class traitor for abandoning his class origins, examines his identity issues in the light of political and sociological realities.

One theme that emerges, and which we understand to cover far more than the French politics it cites, concerns how the working classes, feeling betrayed, have been shifting from their traditional support of leftwing ideas and parties to populist, rightwing ones, particularly Marine Le Pen’s National Front. Trump’s name is never spoken but his existence in this maelstrom of international unease is hard to ignore. When Katy reveals her personal understanding of and involvement in the issues at stake, the play takes a surprisingly autobiographical detour into Hoss’s own life. It’s interesting but only serves to muddy the waters.

Returning to Reims is not a ready-made crowd pleaser. The narration’s low-key focus on Didier’s identity issues, the kind that have become increasingly familiar in recent years, is not as gripping as one could wish; not only do most American audiences have no connection to Didier, we’re hearing his thoughts through the medium of a woman’s voice and presence, creating a Brechtian effect that distances us emotionally. Moreover, the emphasis on the class-related preoccupations of European politics, while of intellectual interest, seems more appropriate for a TED lecture than a dramatic presentation.

Hoss, an exceptional artist, reads the narrative in a soft, naturalistic, barely accented, deceptively objective tone; its mood is perfect for the footage being projected if you focus only on that but it seems oddly disconnected from the narrator’s living, onstage presence, where we expect more overt demonstrations of action and emotion.

Even when engaged in vital dialogue with the somewhat more volatile filmmaker, Hoss’s demeanor—a reflection of gender-related dominance-submission issues?—is personable, droll, controlled, knowing, and disciplined. The scenes during which Paul gets Katy to divulge her personal story—at far too great a length—as her face fills the large screen over her head never betray that she’s performing rather than living what she’s portraying.
Bush Moukarzel, Nina Hoss, Ali Gadema. Photo: Arno Declair.
While there are several boring patches in Returning to Reims it generally manages to sustain interest; political junkies are likely to relish it more than those seeking dramatic action and strong feelings. The arguments are pertinent and thought-provoking but not notably polemical and the general subtlety of their presentation is less stimulating than an opening segment of Rachel Maddow on an active news day.

My politically active plus-one was hypnotized by the discourse from first to last. I, though, was more excited about seeing and learning about the fascinating Nina Hoss up close and personal.


St. Ann’s Warehouse
42 Water St., Brooklyn, NYC
Through February 25 

Did the Folks Next to Me Like It (8)

This time it wasn’t someone next to me but a pleasant, white-haired woman who, hungry to discuss what she’d just seen, had begun to chat about the play with me and my plus-one on Dock Street as we walked to the subway. I asked for her grade on a score of 1-100. Hesitant at first, she offered a 6 or a 7. I asked if a 70 would do, and she agreed.