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Circuits Clandestins

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CIRCUITS CLANDESTINS

Compagnie Patrice Bigel/La Rumeur

at the UIC Theatre

A man in a magenta suit (played by Jean-Christophe Clair) enters and walks smartly downstage. An amplified voice says, "Oui." Pleased, the man hustles back upstage and walks forward again, slightly flashier this time. "Oui." The man throws off his jacket and walks forward again and again in various attitudes, like a runway model trying to capture the right approach, but the ouis turn to nons, and each new step meets with greater disapproval. He's all too eager to please the amplified voice, but he doesn't know how and everything he does is wrong. The man in the loud suit becomes trapped, literally not knowing which way to turn.

I can't imagine an actor who, at one time or another, hasn't been jerked around like the man in the loud suit. Whether it's at an audition, a rehearsal, or one of those grotesquely ambiguous "interviews," there's someone who makes the demands and there's an actor who has to figure out how to fulfill those demands. And that's pretty much what Circuits Clandestins is all about.

The play is set in the 50s at a film studio. A cast of ten, five women and five men, play a variety of roles in a number of scenes that don't quite add up to what you would call a story. Call it an impression, a condemnation of a sleazy underworld where actors make the rounds from cattle call to casting couch. And these scenes are dramatized not so much in language--although French and phonetic English are used--as in intricately choreographed images. Some of the images are striking, and a few are really very funny.

The premise of several scenes is the sexual exploitation of female actors. At one audition, for instance, five women pose with their hands up in the air as if they've just been arrested. In this posture, they shrug off hats, gloves, shoes, scarves, and dresses--all without using their hands. Meanwhile, men circle them like starving carnivores until one woman is selected and taken backstage. Whether she got the part or not, of course, remains indefinite.

In another scene, an actor (Brigitte Barilley) makes repeated attempts to sing a song she can't remember. With each failed attempt she excuses herself and becomes progressively giggly. Men are drawn to her, assisting her to and from the microphone. They paw at her as she suddenly, and inexplicably, goes limp. At this point the actor is an expressionless puppet, which two men support and manipulate in a striptease. At the end of the scene, when she's left on the floor in nothing but her underpants, a recorded voice repeats, "We remember Marilyn as a woman, an artist, a great star, and a friend." The explicit ending, unfortunately, ruins the abstraction. Perhaps if they'd left that line in French . . .

Repetition, by the way, is a major element of the method here. Actors often wear the same clothes in different colors. The women especially get a great deal of use out of identical white cocktail dresses with complementary wedding veils, for whatever symbolic reason. And as I've mentioned, routines are often choreographed with repetitions. One reason, I suppose, is to get at the stultifying nature of the film medium itself. Take 132, this time with feeling. Also suggested is that with each repetition, each attempt at cinematic perfection, the actor becomes further dehumanized.

There are lots of scenes, too many, that illustrate this thesis. In one, a woman (Jocelyne Ricci) who has got caught up in the skin trade--leaving mate for lover for two men she can't catch up with--runs back and forth across the stage in pursuit. And at each pass, her old lover rips shreds of clothing off her back until she's left naked, exhausted, and humiliated. On the lighter side, in another scene a man demonstrates a pratfall several times in succession. First he spreads dish soap on the floor, and then performs a ridiculous soft-shoe until he slips on the soap. Each time he falls it takes a little more out of him. In spite of the pathetic overtones, I got a good laugh out of the pratfalls. Which goes to show, I guess, that when you push a theme too hard, you have to deal with the law of diminishing returns.

Don't get the idea that this play is obnoxiously didactic. There are some fun, and just for fun, scenes. For instance, a guy swings another guy around by his tie. How can you beat that? OK, it's slightly metaphorical. But even better, there's a scene where two actors read the stage directions to a fight scene. Yet, instead of acting out the scene, they handle each direction cosmetically. So they crumple each other's lapels, muss hair, apply stage blood, and rub dirt on their clothes. And it's all done so prissily that it contrasts nicely with these two totally beat-up looking actors. Sure, there's probably some message here too, but I can enjoy it more if I don't have to think about it.

In the end, creator/director Patrice Bigel makes his point about the exploitation of actors in certain, if sometimes abstract, terms. It's a point that lots of people are tired of having made for them. So if you have a grudge against either the avant-garde or the theme of actors as victims, I'd steer clear of this show. Me, I ate it up. Bigel is just cynical and creative enough to make his point without beating a dead horse. And, although he's no Jacques Tati, he has a good sense of humor and of theatrical rhythm. Bigel has also brought lights, music, and, most of all, actors together into a well-orchestrated ensemble. I was a little burned out toward the end of the show--too many variations on a single theme--but enjoyed most of it.

And that, perhaps, is the major criticism: that the show still breaks down into a collection of scenes. A condemnation of the exploitation of actors isn't enough to hold a play together. A story builds, goes somewhere, has a conclusion, accomplishes something. But an impression simply is. It can only spread out or become more ornate, and eventually it can spread itself too thin to sustain a theatrical event.

What's also odd, and virtually unexamined in Circuits Clandestins, is the notion that actors willingly submit to their own exploitation. It's somehow easy to psych out the producer/director character as he slumps on the casting couch or rudely walks in and out of auditions. You don't know what he wants, but then neither does he. He's just there to evaluate, to use, to discard. But the actors--you can see what they want. They want to make it. They want to know what they have to do to make it. In one scene you hear them recite their job histories during a junk-food break: bus driver, cat sitter, blood donor, extra, food tester, silhouette. But what you don't know is why they put themselves through all that in order to put themselves through all this.

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