A scene from Au Revoir Parapluie
(© Mario Del Curto)
A scene from Au Revoir Parapluie
(© Mario Del Curto)
If you didn't know that James Thiérrée is Charlie Chaplin's grandson, I wonder how long it would take you to realize it as you marvel wide-eyed and drop-jawed at his absolute must-see theatrical event, Au Revoir Parapluie, now in a limited engagement at BAM. Thiérrée -- who barely speaks during this 100-minute whizbang -- has the curly Chaplin hair, as well as his ancestor's facial planes, the supple body, the penchant for silly walks, the impulse for balletic movement, the knack for blending hilarity with pathos, and the overall genius for creativity.

Indeed, it could be said that in the way Thiérrée has constructed Au Revoir Parapluie (which translates as Goodbye, Umbrella), he's produced the equivalent of a post-modern silent film. There are even moments in the rambunctious activity that Thiérrée fabricates -- from props as varied as enormous hooks dangling overhead, an outsized skeletal rocking-chair, and a hurdy-gurdy on a tall rolling-cart -- when he and some of his cast members skitter backwards as if they've been captured on film being rewound.

During its fast, not to say exhausting, pace, Thiérrée and his vastly-skilled colleagues, Kaori Ito, Magnus Jakobsson, Satchie Noro, and Maria Sendow, entwine themselves in thick and undulating ropes hanging from those hooks, twirl like dervishes, juggle sheaves of reeds, cavort under wide swaths of fabric, wrap themselves around each other, indulge in magic tricks, tangle with uncooperative furniture, and even erect a circus tent in obvious homage to Thiérrée's upbringing. And that's not even the half of it.

There's also the silent screaming that Thiérrée does at the top of his whirligig, which is the beginning of the sketchy story being told. It's a variation on the Orpheus myth that Thiérrée spins like a brightly-colored top. Those introductory outcries represent his Little Tramp update venting sorrow. He's lost not only his wife (danced gorgeously by Noro) to some Hades-like realm, but also his young child (Ito). Everything that ensues is either the hapless but indefatigable protagonist's every-which-way search to find his loved ones or to depict their home-life in flashback. The poor man is helped or hindered -- you're never sure which -- by a ubiquitous singer (Sendow) and seeming handyman with dynamic acrobatic skills (Jakobsson).

The inarguable brilliance of Au Revoir Parapluie is that while from moment to moment it's laugh-out-loud funny, it's also ineffably sad. And don't try to tell me that Thiérrée hasn't taken on the same complex view of life that his grandfather offered at the end of City Lights. Without really uttering a word, he's talking non-stop about constant loss. During the play-ballet-vaudeville-circus enterprise, he does bring on a red umbrella; but it's only the handle and ribs and no covering fabric. He's suggesting that protection can't be counted on. Towards the end of his nimble narrative, he contrives to get his three focal characters dangling from a tightrope. If that isn't a metaphor for family life, what is? (By the way, Thiérrée's great-grandfather on his mother's side was Eugene O'Neill.)

Because Thiérrée is a total theater artist, every element of the show is elegant and important. The costumes, which are only intermittently extravagant, are by his mother, Victoria, and Manon Gignoux. The lighting is by Jerome Sabre, but no one is credited for realizing Thiérrée's notions about the vast array of props. Thomas Delot did the sound and the almost unbroken underscoring, which includes music by Bach, Vivaldi, Schubert, Duke Ellington, and Tom Waits.

In Au Revoir Parapluie, Thiérrée pays deep respect to his eminent legacy and then builds magnificently on it with unbounded intelligence and hilarity.