Serge Nicolai in Les Éphémères
(© Michèle Laurent)
Serge Nicolai in Les Éphémères
(© Michèle Laurent)
The thrilling paradox of Ariane Mnouchkine's Lincoln Center Festival 2009 entry, Les Éphémères, now at the Park Avenue Armory, is that it's not like anything you've seen before and yet you've somehow seen it every day of your life.

The revered French director has put together a two-part, seven-hour-or-so pageant in which vignette after vignette documents the sort of daily events that no one traditionally marks as sufficiently memorable to be chronicled in a theatrical enterprise; it's as if Mnouchkine had decided to be fabulously mundane by expanding on the third act of Thornton Wilder's Our Town.

More specifically, her 50-member Theatre du Soleil troupe (most notably, Delphine Cottu, Juliana Carneiro da Cunha, Serge Nicolai, Olivia Corsini, Jeremy James, and Shaghayegh Beheshti) is asked to improvise scenes -- sometimes stand-alone, sometimes connected -- in response to the question, "If the world was about to end, what would you do?"

Mnouchkine puts the audience in bleachers on two sides of a wide corridor. Across the playing area -- which has pull-away curtains at each end -- are moving platforms, guided by company members crouching as if executing graceful aerobic exercises, that display a succession of unprepossessing living-rooms, kitchens, bedrooms, doorways, and gardens, all designed with household clutter in mind by Everest Canto de Montserrat.

As the platforms navigate slowly -- making mostly non-stop 360-degrees turns and as composer Jean-Jacques Lemetre plays stringed instruments -- Mnouchkine and her troupe tell their quotidian tales. Significantly in the first two, a death, a birth, and a marriage are conjured, undoubtedly because Mnouchkine wants to acknowledge the three major events in an every person's existence (particularly as the French see things). In the first scene, a woman whose mother has died sells the family home to a man who's first child has just been born; while, in the second, a middle-aged woman is prepared for her daughter's wedding by a brasserie owner with painful memories of her parents' relationship.

In the first half alone, Mnouchkine expands the two opening segments and several others -- including a doctor caught up in the life of an old woman with pregnancy delusions -- by interspersing them with an illiterate couple forfeiting their possessions for non-payment of rent, a working-class wife who doesn't speak with her husband throughout dinner and remains silent when he collapses over his soup, an American transsexual accustoming herself to Paris life with its prying neighbors, and an old couple harassed at their door by a drug-addict grandson. In the second half, Mnouchkine delves at greater length --with illuminating flashbacks -- into some of the stories introduced earlier, the most extensive being the tale of the woman who's sold the family home and now wants to learn about her mother's past.

Naturally, there are drawbacks to depicting ephemera, including the temptation -- not always resisted -- to indulge in sentimentality. There's also the unalterable fact that tediously mundane moments can be just that. But even those scenes are worth tolerating, since the show as a whole is such a valuable lesson about the gritty texture of everyone's life.