Franco-American relations, which appear to be improving under France's new president Nicolas Sarkozy, deserve to get even better as a result of Fables de La Fontaine, Texas-born Robert Wilson's 2004 collaboration with the revered Comedie-Francaise. The happy occasion, now being presented at Lincoln Center Festival 2007, is an adaptation of 17th-century verse fables written by Jean de La Fontaine at about the same time the Comedie-Francaise was being organized around Moliere's acting company.
In creating this piece, based on 19 of La Fontaine's moralistic animal tales, the Comedie-Francaise has smartly mixed something that couldn't be more grounded in French literary tradition with someone who continues to represent forward-thinking international theater production at its classiest. Moreover, this meeting of exciting minds represents a return for Wilson to the height of his considerable powers.
In his recent adaptations of Buchner's Woyzeck and Ibsen's Peer Gynt, Wilson has overplayed his visual strengths. In his determination to treat the senses to circuses of color and sound, he has sometimes lost sight of content and trivialized his source material.
The reason for the success of this project, however, is not because La Fontaine's oeuvre is so weightless that scanting it makes no difference. True, his rhymed pieces are whimsical as they go about commenting on questionable human behavior through stand-ins from the animal kingdom; but this whimsy has a serious undertone. Cynicism dominates as segment follows segment in which the rich and powerful prevail and the gullible and easily flattered are trumped. Eventually, La Fontaine begins to be as significant a philosopher on human nature as Voltaire.
When a lion (played with regal sternness by lanky Bakary Sangare) allows his claws to be clipped out of blind love, he seals his undoing. When a cicada (the vibrant Coraly Zahonero) spends her summer singing and hopes to obtain grain for the winter from an ant (the quick-stepping Madeleine Marion), she's told to dance to keep warm. When a fox (Laurent Stocker, acting very wily) begs a crow with a cheese round in her mouth (Celine Samie, perching proudly) to sing, the self-impressed crow learns a lesson about pride. When a young mouse, (giggly Francoise Gillard) meets a beautiful cat (sinuous Leonie Simaga) and an ungainly cock (the bombastic Gerard Giroudon), she picks up a few pointers about judging people by their looks. And so it goes, with the impeccably trained Comedie-Francise ensemble -- prominently featuring Christine Fersen as La Fontaine -- repeatedly showing off their speaking and pantomime techniques in gorgeous stage pictures.
Rarely is a Wilson enterprise less than exquisite to look at. The aesthetic allure begins with Wilson himself, since he designs his own sets and lighting. But the eye-candy aspects always extend to his collaborators. Here, Moidele Bickel's piquant costumes work beautifully with Kuno Schlegelmilch's masks, some of which give the impression that Schlegelmilch was mentored by Pablo Picasso. And what composer Michael Galasso does with his insinuating melodies eventually suggests the playful grandeur Prokofiev lent Peter and the Wolf.
The acclaim Fables de La Fontaine earns does come with a few caveats. The production is presented in French with three supertitle strips, the largest of which is high over the stage and calls for more neck-craning than many patrons will consider comfortable. Because one area in which French conventions jibe tidily with Wilson's is on the treatment of pace -- often deliberately slow -- there are times when a get-on-with-it feeling comes creeping.
Finally, although common wisdom has it that every school child in France knows many of La Fontaine's approximately 250 fables inside-out, that doesn't mean children everywhere will respond to the sophisticated messages imparted about the dark side of human nature. But even if Fables de La Fontaine isn't for children of all ages, it's definitely for children of many ages.