Children of Paradise
By: Joel Benjamin
Bruce Schaffer and Chris Douros in a scene from Richmond
Shepard’s Children of Paradise
(Photo credit: Nicholas Wolfson)
Ardent fans of the 1945 Marcel Carné film Les Enfant du Paradis (Children of Paradise) will be both disappointed and delighted by Richmond Shepard’s “play with mime” of the same name—which he also directed—at the Theater for the New City in the East Village. Disappointed, because it isn’t a stage version of the movie—but who would want to see that sprawling epic of 19th century Paris on a tiny stage? Delighted, because Mr. Shepard provides a very rare opportunity to see lovingly staged classic mime from that period performed by his carefully tended students.
In his Children of Paradise, Mr. Shepard professes to provide the story of the mime legend Jean-Gaspard Debureau who was the leading character of the Carné film. According to Mr. Shepard, the film was more entertaining than factual and he wanted to set the record straight. In his staging, Debureau, who used the stage name Baptiste, narrates his own story from age 45, during a crisis in his life, to his humble beginnings, and then back to his death at age 50 at the height of his fame. He was famous for breathing new life into the Commedia dell’Arte character Pierrot at a time when Harlequin was usually featured as the lead in mime plays. Several of Debureau’s mime creations featuring Pierrot punctuate this biography during which all the characters in his life parade through his story: his nagging wife Louisa, the bastard theater manager Bertrand, the love of his life Garance who died too young, plus a panoply of actors, friends and family.
“The Old Clothes Man” was the first vignette performed. This was a story of a little clothing store in which the hat rack and mirror were cleverly portrayed by mimes. When a posh guest entered, the proprietress kissed her feet as the customer simply walked over her prone body. It was little touches like that that made the story fascinating to watch. Pierrot/Baptiste wanted a sharp outfit to look good but had no money so he stabbed an Old Clothes Man to death but is plagued by the ghost of this peddler until he falls apart. “The Captain Comes A-wooing” was another mime scene, this time set in a café. Here Pierrot appeared to be teaching a young lady while customers savored the waitress. A boastful Captain caused his own embarrassing downfall in a fight with a younger man and Pierrot mimed a lovely domestic story of domesticity and childbirth.
Woven into these historic re-creations is a great deal of straightforward biographical data presented in a “then I did this and then I did that” way. We learn all about Debureau’s life this way.
Mr. Shepard has to be applauded for maintaining the ancient traditions of classical mime and for offering modern audiences a chance to see these little bits of 19th century art live again. However, his enthusiastic cast members are skilled amateurs who move well but are awkward when called upon to speak. Part of the problem is Mr. Shepard’s unsubtle by-the-numbers script which makes no attempts at psychological or emotional depth. The leading actor, Chris Douros who plays Debureau is a handsome man with piercing eyes, but speaks his lines as if reading them off a cue card though he commands the stage when he dons his Pierrot costumes. Kendall Rileigh as his wife Louisa, communicates her discontent well, and Peter De Paula as the villainous theater owner Bertrand is truly hiss-worthy.
Denise M. Whalen, in various roles, is a pert, full-bodied mime and a wide-eyed ingénue who worships Debureau. Bruce Schaffer who played the silly Captain, has a rubbery face which he used to great comic effect. Nathaniel Moore was particularly good as the Mirror who mimicked all those who looked at him. Marcus Watson, who also staged the combat scenes, is a wiry young man who clearly delineated the characters he played, most particularly the Old Clothes Man who haunted Pierrot. Jenny Chang, Jonathan Hendrickson, Aaron Kaplan, Stacey Hull, Michael Siegell and T. Valada-Viars completed the cast.
Harrison Wade, the show’s music director, provided brilliant musical accompaniment dipping into a wide range of classical music from this period. He created many moods and supported all the action with great skill and expressiveness.
Children of Paradise (through February 24th, 2013)
Theater for the New City, 151 First Ave. between 9th & 10th Streets, in Manhattan
Tickets: 212-868-4444 or http://www.smarttix.com
More Information: http://www.childrenofparadise.net
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