By ANDREA STOLOWITZ
Fairy tales have a certain framework. They start with “Once upon a time” and they end with “happily ever after.” We’ve come to expect that whatever comes in the middle of those words could be wacky, wild, unpredictable, delightful, frightful and most importantly, unknown. Often there is a forest involved. And magic.
This fairy-tale structure creates a framework, a basket if you will, in which an artist can explore the confines of the strangest of stories without “losing” the audience. Why? Because the audience knows exactly what the contract is: We’re in a fairy-tale and in this world the possibilities are limitless.
It is not accidental that the opening of Philippe Quesne’s La Mélancolie des Dragons, part of PICA’s recently concluded TBA:15 festival, begins with A VW Rabbit (with an enormous trailer behind it) sitting peacefully on a snowy stage surrounded by white-blanketed trees in the middle of the woods. It cues a fairy-tale world and voilá, simple as that, the audience’s permission for whatever will come next has been granted.
It’s early morning, still dark really.There’s movement in the car. Heads with long hair move in and out of the dim light, drinks in cans (beer?) are raised, bodies assume the uncomfortable position of sleeping in a cramped car. Outside the car, the outside world goes by. A woman on cross-country skis out for an early jaunt. Another woman on a bicycle journeying through the woods.
As dawn approaches our car occupants wake up and turn on a montage selection of heavy metal music (AC/DC, Metallica, the Scorpions) from the 1980s, drink beer, and rock out, all while still inside the car. It goes on for five minutes. We laugh increasingly at each ‘80s music selection and the reactions to it, wondering what the next musical choice will be.
We are ten minutes into the piece by the time our occupants exit the car. They are older than maybe we expected, aging really. Well, they were probably young in the ‘80s.
They seem to be a rock and roll band on some kind of tour. They are stuck in the woods. Car trouble it seems. Out of the back trailer emerge three more rockers. All seven of them have hilariously long ‘90s heavy-metal styled wigs which often get in the way of their job as performers. They patiently remove the hair from their faces so they can speak their lines. They laugh at the encumbrance; we laugh at it too.
Now the rules have sharpened. We are not in only a fairy tale world; we are also in a meta-theatrical world where the actors are cognizant of the fact that they are in a performance, wearing absurdly long wigs. This awareness changes our role. Now we know that we, the audience, are meant to be part of the essential quality of the piece; we have been invited into the play.
The next event that occurs is that an extremely friendly older woman named Isabelle arrives and attempts to help our rockers with their car trouble. She looks under the hood. She removes several broken parts. She sighs. We laugh. She makes a phone call. The new part will take a week to arrive.
The rockers take the news in stride. There is not much dialogue here but what there is is served up in adorable French accented English. They explain to Isabelle that they are not in fact a rock band. They are a traveling “amusement park.” If we the audience feel confused at this point that’s fine because we needn’t worry, we have a representative on the inside, we have Isabelle who doesn’t understand either.
In order to help her (and us) comprehend what a traveling amusement park of art installations is, they ask her if she would like to see their show. Isabelle, the most eager sort of audience member exclaims, “Oh yes, please.” And we are off with our rockers shyly eager to show their amusement park to Isabelle.
What occurs over the next 60 minutes is the creation for Isabelle of each of the installations in the amusement park. These consist of gently floating wigs, an out-of-control bubble machine, texts projected on a screen, a library containing books ranging from childhood favorites to theories of contemporary art, and giant inflatable rectangles that bump around the stage.
The lighting and music shift to accentuate each attraction. Sometimes we get Haydn, lilac light, a smoke machine and bubbles. This all serves to delight Isabelle and the rockers. Through this show-and-tell format we the audience are introduced to each of the installations of the piece.
At times the rockers sweetly and earnestly explain the concepts behind their work. “Sometimes we like to project text for the audience to read so they understand what’s going on”, we learn through Isabelle.
We begin to feel that the rockers are really the spokespeople of Philippe Quesne and Vivarium Studio and Isabelle stands for us. We love these rockers, these selfless loopy people who go around with poor equipment and great ideas to bring us a slightly skewed way of looking at the world. Through them we see a world filled with joy in creation, human interaction, and possibility. Through them we are able to see the world as we did when we were young, with childlike wonder.
The show continues until we arrive at the grand finalé: All the installations occur at once with the massive inflatables dominating the stage picture like some kind of crazy fairy-tale creation. The rockers smile. Isabelle smiles. We smile. The world is indeed a big, wonderful, messy, confusing place and sometimes, just sometimes, you have the opportunity to explore it when you have the good fortune of being stuck in the woods.
And so they lived, happily ever after.