The six-hour-plus Le Dernier Caravanéerail is an absolute must-see for anyone claiming an interest in theater and/or in the plight of political refugees. True, the proceedings are at times frustrating, and there are glitches in the subtitle and surtitle system. The stories that Mnouchkine and her 75-person troupe tell can sometimes become so fragmented over the attenuated two parts of the piece that they're a major challenge to follow. The helter-skelter activity that accompanies them, with actors scurrying to and from the bare, 180-feet-wide by 82-feet-deep stage while rolling props, is eventually tedious.
Yet there's no escaping the force with which the 66-year-old Mnouchkine, who has headed Le Théâtre du Soleil for 40 years, and her collaborators deal with the interwoven histories of fugitives from more than a handful of countries including Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Serbia, Russia, and Afghanistan. Told in brief chapters are disturbing tales involving men and women destroyed by the Taliban, emigrés attempting to hitch a ride on the Eurostar from cavities in the Eurotunnel, a detainee in an Australian detention center, and other troubling anecdotes of flight, smuggling, and peril. Depicted are problems faced even after successful arrivals, as during a combustible episode wherein a Russian woman and a Chechnyan woman continue their private war in an English sweat shop. The odysseys -- as Mnouchkine chooses to call them in a blatant reference to Homer's epic poems about finding a welcome homeland -- have been collected, edited, and adapted for the stage by the director working in improvisatory fashion with her company.
A canny theater artist, Mnouchkine contrives to open each segment with an eye-popping coup de théâtre. Both involve refugees navigating inhospitable waters, which are created by troupe members manipulating huge gray sheets at the edge of the flat stage. (Guy-Claude François' matching set has a long downstage trench and a hanging gray sheet upstage from under which set pieces continually emerge and retreat.) Mnouchkine calls the first part of the piece "The Cruel River," which is meant literally and metaphorically. The metaphorical aspect has to do with the crossings that are the point of all asylum-seeking, but the literal representation of these cruel waters is Mnouchkine's most theatrical accomplishment: When billowing waves threaten to swallow those fleeing one country to arrive safely in another, it's as if Theodore Gericault's disaster-at-sea canvases had sprung to scarifying life.
Throughout, Mnouchkine's desired effects are immeasurably enhanced by the lighting of Cécile Allegoedt, Carlos Obregon, Cédric Baudic, and Simon André, plus the sound design of Patricia Cano, Yann Lemêtre, and Marie Heuzé. The virtually non-stop music is by Jean-Jacques Lemêtre. The primarily downscale costumes are by Marie-Hélène Bouvet, Nathalie Thomas, and Annie Tran.
In dealing with some of the international community's most pressing problems, Mnouchkine eschews realism. (She echoes The Living Theatre's Paradise Now with its signature outcry, "I cannot travel without a passport," and departs from David Edgar's superlative Pentecost, which also concerns thwarted refugees.) The actors never touch the stage; they and the sets, including numerous stunted trees, are wheeled about on trolleys by other Soleil members. Maybe this conceit is meant to stress the problems that refugees face in new lands but it adds a certain distance to the narrative.
Though it's also not Mnouchkine's intention that every word of the dozen languages spoken in the compiled text be clearly enunciated -- it's often the tableau that counts, as well as the legends projected on the upstage curtain in beautiful calligraphy -- certain words crop up with pointed frequency. Perhaps the one most often seen, if not heard, is "money," followed closely by the phrase "not enough." A French socialist whose guiding motivation is theater for the people, Mnouchkine leaves little doubt about the import of her commanding, demanding piece; she's demonstrating what the motivation quickly becomes when the activity is human traffic.