Fort Greene

Live at BAM: ‘Tabac Rouge’

October 8, 2015 By Benjamin Preston Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
James Thierrée. Photos by Jack Vartoogian, courtesy of BAM
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Have you ever wondered what it would be like to ingest a large amount of hallucinogens before horsing around on wheeled office furniture? If not, watching James Thierrée’s Tabac Rouge” — which played last week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) — may give you some insight. Against a dark, moveable set, a cast of dusty characters jumped, twisted and writhed their way through a gloomy, nebulous plot centered on a king-like character played by Thierrée.

Thierrée, the drama’s center point, also directed, choreographed and designed the set, which featured a huge, rickety-looking scaffolding covered in grimy mirrored panels. The result of Thierrée’s wordless physical theater creation takes the mind-bent office chair romp concept and adds a crew of energetic mimes. In between pensive armchair-bound pipe-smoking sessions, Thierrée exploded into furious bouts of activity at a large desk, as well as angry gibberish tirades directed at his squirming minions. The minions rebel at one point, the king man dies and is revived and life seems to go on and on in cycles of rage and opiate calm.

Difficult-to-discern storyline notwithstanding, “Tabac Rouge” had moments of fun ensconced within its pervasive dystopian darkness. Valérie Doucet, a contortionist from Quebec, plied her trade successfully in occasional attempts to cheer up the despondent monarch. Walking on her hands and feet across the stage, doubled over backwards, she resembled a creature from a Tim Burton film, albeit in the flesh. Her skill in folding herself into impossible positions was impressive.

Magnus Jakobsson managed to turn his sycophantic lieutenant character into a lovable fellow, his chin always tucked in and chest thrown out in deference to his bipolar master. With his dusty captain-of-bellhops uniform and obsequious manner, he soaked up tyrannical abuse and meted out motherly admonition with equal kindness, seeming to reinforce through his mute performance that there’s someone for everyone.

Thierrée’s use of sound effects and music were also notable, particularly in a scene in which Thierrée, writing a letter onto a piece of parchment, mouthed the over-amplified scratching sound made by his pen in a mimicry of speech. He also included a haunting classical music soundtrack that added emotional color to a performance that may otherwise have been an overbearing cycle of depression and mania.

It was tough to say what the quintet of female minion dancers were up to at any given time. They exuded anguish as they rolled around the stage on back-mounted skate pads during the kingpin’s frequent outbursts, all of which were delivered in a gibberish that was best kept brief. Unfortunately, Thierrée went on an extended gibberish rant, stretching something that could have been used for accentuation into a strident chorus of scratchy yelling.

The performance was, generally, entertaining as an escape from a normal, happy life. But its abstraction and melancholy undoubtedly left many audience members scratching their heads in confusion once the noise from their applause at daring acrobatic feats had died down. 

After the Sept. 30 performance, BAM presented Thierrée with its Richard B. Fisher Next Wave Award, which is now in its 10th year. Thierrée, who is Charlie Chaplin’s grandson and grew up with circus performer parents, received the award for his “influence on contemporary visual performance.”

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