By James Thierrée
Produced by Compagnie du Hanneton / Junebug
Part of BAM's 2017 Next Wave Festival
Off Broadway, Physical Theatre
Ran through 10.14.17
BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Avenue
by Ran Xia on 10.14.16
James Thierrée in La Grenouille Avait Raison (The Toad Knew). Photo by Richard Haughton.
BOTTOM LINE: James Thierrée's ambitious physical theatre creation is a menagerie of strange beauties that will leave you satisfied and mystified.
The interior of James Thierrée’s imaginary realm is deliciously perplexing: after the velvet drapes are lifted (the red is almost iridescent), you’re exposed to a nightmarish wonderland straight out of a Murakami novel, a setting that would make Guillermo del Toro and Neil Gaiman green with envy. There’s the man who moves like a marionette (Thierrée) and the woman who is suspended midair by a thread as if a spider in hibernation (Thi Mai Nguyen). The space is darkly illuminated like the bottom of the ocean, or a cave, where minerals shimmer on stone walls, subterranean currents gurgle and rumble, and nocturnal creatures whisper their ancient enchantments. A visibly complex pulley system connects with a central piece that seems to come alive with lights that change color according to various moods; like a creature with numerous tentacles stretching out in every direction, each ends with a cluster of light encased by a lantern that resembles a fossilized lily pad. A murky aquarium is connected to the sentient monster by what looks like an aerial root, or an aorta.
The juxtaposition of futuristic and baroque elements makes it difficult to determine whether the story takes place in a tricked-out ancient fairyland, or a cyberpunk-esque apocalyptic tomorrow. But either way, The Toad Knew is a Rube Goldberg machine of mysteries, an endless series of surprises that leaves you dazzled by the way Thierrée’s mind works. I imagine the characters (simply described as siblings in the program) have names like those invented by Italo Calvino in his Cosmocomics—unpronounceable, but delightfully whimsical. The choreography is deliberate and maniacal. The performers navigate the space in such a way that every inch of their body seem to bend; their movements are fractured and disjointed, though with a fluidity that informs you that it’s indeed their natural state. It’s as if the air refracts the light differently. Thierrée’s direct lineage from the great Charlie Chaplin is evident in the ease at which he manipulates almost every inch of his own body. The narrator is the empress-like toad herself: the mysterious songstress (Ofélie Crispin’s haunting voice) weaves together each piece of the story with eerie melodies, wrapped in the same luxurious red velvet as the drapes.
If you try to make sense of the narrative, you wouldn’t get very far. But making sense of the narrative, or having a narrative at all, is far from the point of this exquisite and bizarre theatrical experience, which is infused with circus, physical comedy, pantomime, and magic: a violin that refuses to be shaken off its player’s hand; plates that multiply themselves; the aquarium that seems alive; a dusty piano that has its own sassy mind; the siblings who find themselves unable to dislodge their hands from each others’ grips. This is a spectacular promenade that doesn’t need an explanation—we wouldn’t ask Paganini to explain his impromptu virtuoso either would we?
Although a satisfying sensory feast, as well as an inspiring creation of art that doesn’t (and needn’t) follow rules of narrative, I can’t help but wish that The Toad Knew didn’t rely so much on technical capabilities. The multicolored lights and various effects, while fascinating, don’t add much, and may even dilute the strength of the performers’ physical storytelling. The lavish and elaborate set keeps tantalizing that this attitude of abstraction is going to reach somewhere concrete, but it doesn’t. In the end, we still never figure out what the toad knew. Of course, the good news is that the question is irrelevant.
(La Grenouille Avait Raison (The Toad Knew) played at BAM's Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Avenue, through October 14, 2017. The running time was 1 hour 45 minutes with no intermission. For more information visit bam.org.)
La Grenouille Avait Raison (The Toad Knew) is by James Thierrée, who also did the Set Design and Original Music. Sound Design is by Thomas Delot. Lighting Design is by Alex Hardellet and James Thierrée. Costume Design is by Pascaline Chavanne. Puppets are by Victoria Thierrée. Technical Coordination is Anthony Nicolas. Stage Managers are Samuel Dutertre, Lorenzo Graouer, and Anthony Nicolas. Wardrobe & Stage Manager is Emilie Revel. Assistants to the Director are Pénélope Biessy and Sidonie Pigeon. Assistant to the Scenography is Laura Léonard.
The cast is Sonia “SonYa” Bel Hadj Brahim, Ofélie Crispin, Samuel Dutertre, Hervé Lassïnce, Thi Mai Nguyen, and James Thierrée.