Place de Breteuil | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Place de Breteuil


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Chicago Actors Ensemble

Alain Gautre's Place de Breteuil was given its American premiere in 1986 by Minneapolis's Theatre de la Jeune Lune, a company notorious for its physicality and its unconventional staging and casting. The French author, a friend of the company, has performed as a clown, and this experience is evident in a play that is fraught with unexplained images and moments of wild abandon. The play is perfect, then, for CAE, which prefers frenzied physicality and visual effect to making sense of a story line. CAE plays brilliantly to its strengths in Place de Breteuil, energizing the confusing, somewhat obtuse script to create an engrossing evening if not a thoroughly satisfying one.

Place de Breteuil seems to say something about sexual politics, something about respect, something about what happens when people become useless, when order becomes chaos, when people sink into their own private worlds. It seems to say a lot about John Wayne. But what it's saying, I haven't the slightest idea.

Although interesting, Gautre's script lacks any sort of focus. Gautre brings up a lot of complex issues but doesn't concentrate on them, any more than he does on his characters or the things that happen to them. There are, sort of, three separate stories being played out, each having little impact on the others. Events seemingly occur for no reason other than that the characters are bored, lonely, and sexually frustrated (though why they feel that way is left a mystery). I was reminded of studies of the behavior of rats trapped in overcrowded cages; yet the office world of Place de Breteuil contains only four people, and they go home at the end of the day. Their motivations, even in this absurd landscape, are puzzling. The most clear concept to emerge is the idea that everyone harbors a secret life, and when that life is shattered, a person cannot continue. This may be the ultimate point of Place de Breteuil, but it is so obscured by the many other themes running through the play that I can't be sure.

The workers' main function seems to be to keep busy and generate as much paperwork as possible. The paperwork never leaves the office, and as the play progresses stacks of paper come to fill most of the space not occupied by human beings.

A progression from order to chaos also takes place in the minds of the office personnel. Everyone is drawn into his or her own private obsessions. The office manager, Luc Francard, has a John Wayne/wild West fixation, which he plays at in his private office until he decides (for uncertain reasons) to throw an office party. At the party, which goes out of control, Francard inflicts his obsession on everyone else, demanding that they play out a roundup. The senior worker, Silvain Dubreuil, thinks of nothing but sex; the bimbo secretary, Dominique Rives, immerses herself in fantasies of love; and Joel Lerallic, who seems to be a sweet, simple everyman, writes secretly in a little orange notebook.

But privacy is not to be had in Place de Breteuil. Silvain cannot resist the urge to steal Joel's notebook and read it to the rest of the office. And when Joel loses his secret life, he slips into madness. By the end of the show, there is pure pandemonium. Paper and blood litter the stage; everything and everybody is broken, filthy, and on the floor.

Place de Breteuil is uproariously funny, filled with delightfully odd images and offbeat humor, but it's tragic and disturbing too. Pornography, sexual power, and loneliness are running themes, and Gautre's resolution of them is extremely bleak.

Director Rick Helweg gives the office an aura of a slightly sinister, adult playground. Set designer Ro Annis creates an environment that begins as a perfectly orderly (albeit odd) office, and becomes the biggest mess I've ever seen on a stage. The four cast members work well together, and all seem dedicated to the sheer fun of performing the play. Margaret Kale Nelson has a lot of trouble with her character's valley-girl language, but her physicality and nonverbal moments work well. Eric Winzenried adds just enough warmth to his part as the cold-hearted, lust-filled Silvain to make his final desperation believable. And Marc A. Nelson ably walks the thin line between silly buffoon and scary maniac as the John Wayne fan, Luc Francard.

But Shawn Durr, as Joel, drives CAE's production beyond the limits of the script. Durr is stunning as the mild-mannered, much-abused Lerallic, whose notebook reveals the secret inner man. It would have been easy to rely on a Clark Kent-ish stereotype, but Durr reveals Lerallic's full complexity with an intensity that is almost frightening.

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