In these times when something as simple as getting together to watch a show is a rare and even risky thing, it’s especially empowering to see a play that reminds us that the theater can really be – at least, in a sense. poetic and thematic – a matter of life and death.
Danse Macabre: the Testament of FranÃ§ois Villon, a captivating piece presented at the ShoeBox until October 3, is the latest project by director Stepan Simek, in collaboration with actor Jean-Luc Boucherot and Hand2Mouth Theater. But it’s also part of a long-standing fascination Simek had for Villon, a 15th-century French poet known both for the brilliance of his work and the savage, sometimes criminal excesses of his way of life.
Asked about his interest in the subject, Simek began his response with: “It’s a long story …”
It was early 2020, shortly before a first screening of the work at the Fertile Ground Festival of New Works that year. Simek, a drama professor at Lewis & Clark College, sat at Costello’s Travel Cafe on Northeast Broadway and, between quiet puffs on a vape pen, spoke about the project and its origins.
âWhen I grew up in Czechoslovakia, there were all these underground singers and poets who were very important to us, and among whom Villon was widely admired as a rowdy outsider, a sort of patron saint of these underground artists. When I moved to Switzerland I was a huge fan of Klaus Kinski, and he was famous there for his recitations of Villon in those fantastic German translations. He has already filled a stadium in Munich by reading Villon!
âSo Villon was just a very well-known figure in Europe. Then later, in my second year at Lewis & Clark, in 2002, I realized The hour between dog and wolf, a play from the 1980s based on the life of Villon. It was by a Czech writer who wrote between the lines – as one did in a communist society – in response to a ban on a folk singer, and it was banned after the first press preview. I translated it and thought it was a good thing to do with students because we were right on the brink of this whole mess with the war in Iraq.
Simek enthusiastically continued Villon’s influence on cultural figures from Charles Bukowski to William Carlos Willams to Bob Dylan.
So, about ten years ago, when he first met Boucherot, it came as a natural assumption that the French actor would also be familiar with the poet’s legacy. âI just casually mentioned that we should do something about Villon. He was all excited. But then we forgot about it.
It took a suggestion from Simek’s wife, a member of the medieval band Musica Universalis, that they work on a project together, to bring Villon’s idea back to active service.
The Fertile Ground exhibit, on display at 2509, a cozy studio in the basement of Simek’s home in northeast Portland, was a highlight of this year’s festival, an exciting and synergistic integration of music and movement. , poetry and narration, all centered on a suspicious characterization by Boucherot.
However, a certain tragic irony awaited the official opening of the show, scheduled for March 12, 2020. A play steeped in a sense of mortality and provocative fatalism has been cut off by a deadly pandemic.
âI was disappointed,â Simek says with a laugh, back at Costello earlier this month.
âOK, we’ll do it in May. It was my first thought. And really, the start of the pandemic was wonderful for me: hanging out in the garden, long bike rides with my wifeâ¦
âI thought, ‘This will work out quickly.’ But we were quickly disillusioned with this notion. Finally we just realized: ‘We’re all screwed. Let’s sit on it and see what happens.
Yet while the artists were seated, the art was incubating. As commercial and social life began to open up again in May and June of this year, before the onslaught of the Delta variant, Simek, Boucherot and company took over the project. Bloomsbury Fine Antiques – originally to serve as an evocative setting for what Simek called the play’s “lyricism and lust” – was no longer available, but the aptly named Shoebox was. Soon their enthusiasm returned as they returned to work on the play in July.
âThere’s kind of a germination process,â Simek says. âWe become more comfortable with it and we discover new things. I think we understand the character and the show better. Strangely enough, we found more humor there.
This humor, however, tends towards the dark variety. How could it be otherwise in a time so clouded by turmoil, disease and death – whether Villon’s time or ours? Simek had made a compelling case for Villon’s continued relevance even before Covid-19 spread dangerously across the world. Now, amid the disruption of police violence, mass protests for social justice, increased gun violence, the increasingly visible crisis of homelessness, and more. Dance of Death feeling particularly timely, almost uncomfortably present.
“Paris in the 15th century was a shit show,” as Simek’s not-so-delicate description, “decaying, living in the shadow of all kinds of tragedy.” So, in Villon’s work, there is a tension that runs through all of the social protest. “
Then, of course, there is the eternal relevance of the death, highlighted even more clearly as the news continues to report the daily tally of Covid deaths.
“No living man can fight death, or obtain a suspension of it from a court,” warns Villon de Boucherot. Simek adds, “I think because so much of the show is about death and death (the timing) makes it even more poignant.”
Much of Villon Will, the semi-autobiographical epic poem that Simek and Boucherot used as the basis of Dance of Death, is both eloquent and direct on the ravages of time and the inevitable end of it all. The show takes the form of a sort of monologue to the cowardly members of Villon, as if it was regaling a tavern crowded with its misadventures and its reveries, its losses and its desires, with a house group both melodious and thorny providing accompaniment and occasional backtalk. But its most striking feature is another creature that walks the stage alongside Villon. A puppet less manipulated than inhabited by Briana Ratterman Trevithick, she sports a grinning / grimacing gray skull mask, a black cloak with a strip of fur on the back, and long appendages like tree branches. Dancing silently through the confined space is scary but somehow alluring.
“It’s the dark presence, the alter-ego, the angel of death – all of those things that have to do with the inner aspects of the individual and also with, just, the absurd darkness around us” , explains Simek.
Embracing both absurdity and humor, he adds, âI’ve heard of a smartphone app that, for a few dollars, text you at totally random times: ‘You’ll die.’
âI became very comfortable with it all. I’m not talking about fatalism, but if I were to fall dead tomorrow it would be a drag, but I have lived well and done interesting things; so I wouldn’t look forward to it but I wouldn’t have any regrets either. And I have this great curiosity. It is the second most important moment of your life!
September 16, 2021, a year and a half later than initially planned, Danse Macabre: the Testament of FranÃ§ois Villon open to the Shoebox. After showing their Covid vaccination cards and donning face masks, 35 customers sat amid chandeliers, candelabras and small tables lining the cramped performance space, somewhat more possible social distancing here than in the middle piles of bones in the catacombs of Paris that Villon at one point remarks on (“… the seigneurial ranks are removed, no one here calls” cleric “or” master “).
âWe are here,â says Hand2Mouth Artistic Director Jonathan Walters in his introduction, âbecause these remarkable artists have not given up on any idea. And he, too, says that “this idea of ââwhat it meant to be human 500 years ago is even more relevant than it was 18 months ago.”
Boucherot begins his performance by speaking in archaic French before switching to English to declare: âWith that, I live in memory! Proudly disheveled, in a hoodie and black leather jacket, he plays cat and mouse with his own image of himself, proclaiming both his innocence and his abjection (“I would shout the verdict myself. But trials cause men to go astray. â). He’s a punk-rock storyteller with a sharp wit and a cunning wink, even though he faces physical, moral and existential dilemmas.
The dark sweet music played on cymbalum and cromhorn, recorders and recorders, amplifies both the bittersweet backdrop and the invigorating, almost hedonistic thrust of Villon’s lyrics, and when Boucherot grabs a microphone to sing along with a sandpaper baritone, he makes Villon appear as a proud ancestor of Serge Gainsbourg and Johnny Hallyday, Richard Hell and Tom Waits. All that is missing to feel like you are in a timeless tavern of the merry damned are cheap jugs of wine and flasks of dark beer; maybe a few glasses of Armangac stolen.
And then – and still – there’s that dark presence, Ratterman Trevithick’s Dark Angel puppet, his now spasmodic and awkward movements, edged with anger; now gracious, suppliant, elegaic.
Finally comes Villon’s last will. âI know everything except myself,â he says. And with that he lifts a veil over the face of his other, and with a kiss he gets married.
Does he marry death? Or is it life?
- Danse Macabre: The Testimony of FranÃ§ois Villon has its last performances at 7:30 p.m. from Thursday to Saturday September 30-Oct. 2:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. Sunday, October 3 at Shoebox, 2110 SE 10th Ave., Portland. The race is sold out, but you can be added to a waiting list by calling 503-217-4202 or emailing [email protected]