Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Doubled Over

By Maureen Needham

OCTOBER 20, 1997:  Philip Glass, the renowned postmodern composer who expanded minimalism into a popular art aesthetic, returned to Nashville this weekend after an absence of several years. Following up on a performance of La Belle et la Bete, he presented Les Enfants Terribles, the third installment of his trilogy based on Jean Cocteau's films. It was a brilliant theatrical innovation, compelling and off-putting at the same time. Watching Les Enfants Terribles was like craning your neck to check out an accident as you drive past: You are mesmerized by the event and yet feel distant from it. The creators of Les Enfants Terribles don't let the audience off the hook so easily, however. In the end, one is led to wonder whether the voyeurs are as guilty of this terrible tragedy as the players.

The spectacle revolves around Paul and Lise, a brother and a sister orphaned at an early age. They cope with their isolation by escaping into a joint fantasy called The Game. No innocent children's game, this. They trade slaps and spits and hair-pulling and cruel insults. All sibs do that, right? But then The Game escalates into sadistic sex and involves other people: Gerard, a "friend" who narrates as he watches the events unfold, and Agathe, who falls in love with Paul. It all ends tragically, of course, in murder and suicide. We're talking Tennessee Williams, Parisian style.

In the prologue, Paul and Lise, played by two dancers, dash in at breakneck speed. They dart, they hide, they pop out at one another. They punch and kiss each other. They hug and back off and twirl in one another's arms. He is dressed in a 1920s maroon silk robe that hangs open to reveal his jockey shorts, she in a flowing, light silk robe over her nightgown.

As the story begins, Paul steps outside into the snowy evening wearing a beaver-collared wool coat over his robe. Gerard intones a description of the events while the dancers reenact them with abstract movements. Three keyboardists, including Glass himself, repeat a similar motif. Paul is injured by a rock hidden inside a snowball. He strides onto the stage, changes direction several times, twirls and collapses, then exits.

Immediately, Paul returns--a double, that is--and repeats the same movements. The first Paul comes in and falls, then the second enters and falls behind him, then yet a third. Musical and movement themes expand and become larger in scale. Stepping backward, the first Paul reenacts the whole thing, as if on a television monitor programmed for instant slow-motion replay. He reels from the direct hit, walks back in a circle, and then runs offstage the way he entered. Three at a time stagger and reel and run off, over and over. Time is not linear in this production: It works the way an obsessive memory does, returning again and again to the scene of the crime.

The multiplication continues: The first Paul is on his sickbed when yet another double intrudes. This double, a singer, coughs in tandem with the dancer Paul, rolls and groans when he does; but he always sings even as he moves in unison with the other doppelgangers. As the Pauls have doubled and quadrupled so have the Lises: One them is singing in tandem with Paul, her arias reminiscent of Ravel in their lush texture and in the purity of her rising and falling voice. Soon, even the brass sickbed is doubled, crammed with reclining Pauls. Before long, there are two beds, four Pauls, four Lises, two Agathes, two of the boy who threw the snowball. But there is only one Gerard, the voyeuristic traveler on this nightmare journey into a dark world. He does not observe this spectacle alone, for his gaze is amplified by that of the audience.

Sibling rivalry
Dancers converge in a choreography of sexuality and sadism in Philip Glass and Susan Marshall's Les Enfants Terribles

The erotic violence increases, and the music steps up a key or two, its rhythm becoming more insistent. A slapping hand game turns into a slapping face game, then ends in kisses. Lise is splayed on the floor, twirled about, but she retaliates and knocks Paul off-balance. He lands on the floor and pantomimes a slow-motion bounce to indicate how hard he has landed. The wrestling becomes ever more abusive until finally Lise literally springs for her freedom and takes a job out of the house.

Enter Agathe, agent provocateur. With languishing and provocative poses, she seduces Lise, but Paul falls in love too. The intruder is stalked as victim, while the doubles turn into an audience, bringing their chairs closer and closer to the action, as if watching a film. The audience is likewise sucked into this voyeuristic stance as the melodramatic plot moves swiftly to its climax.

The music builds in momentum and volume. Lise, pacing like an angry cat, manipulates Gerard to marry Agathe and Paul to swallow poison. As a white curtain drops in front of Paul's bed, the events escalate in tempo. The music swells, becoming more complex and driving, while the dancers' silhouettes gesture in tandem with the singers' dialogue. Lise and the dying Paul retreat into their "Game," which by now is pure, unadulterated sadism and ceases only when Lise shoots herself. Boom! The white curtain is pulled down to reveal exactly two dead bodies. Lights out. Performance over. What a cliffhanger!

And what a brilliant production! Philip Glass and choreographer Susan Marshall collaborate as if they are of one artistic mind, exploring Cocteau's conceptualization of the dark side of the creative imagination. No one performer could be singled out above another. None of the integrated arts stood above one another: Set and lighting and costume design were fully the equal of the music and dance. This was an astounding experience of performance art stretched to its conceptual limits--and that's what Cocteau would say the avant-garde aesthetic is all about, n'est-ce pas?

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