Life, Death, and the Danse Macabre

Out of the Covid crisis rises the captivating specter of François Villon, a wild 15th century poet for our times.

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In these times, when something as simple as gathering together to watch a show is a rare and even risky thing, it’s especially bracing to see a play that reminds us that theater really can be — at least, in a certain poetic and thematic sense — a matter of life and death.

Danse Macabre: The Testament of François Villon, a captivating piece playing at the ShoeBox through October 3, is the latest project from director Stepan Simek, in collaboration with actor Jean-Luc Boucherot and Hand2Mouth Theatre. But it’s also part of a lifelong fascination that Simek has had for Villon, a 15th-century French poet known for both the brilliance of his work and the wild, sometimes criminal excesses of his lifestyle.

Asked about his interest in the subject, Simek began his reply with, “It’s a long story…”

Actor Jean-Luc Boucherot in “Danse Macabre: The Testament of François Villon.” Photo: Sarah Marguier

This was in early 2020, shortly before an early showing of the work during that year’s Fertile Ground Festival of New Works. Simek, a professor of theater at Lewis & Clark College, sat in Costello’s Travel Cafe on Northeast Broadway and, between discreet puffs on a vaping pen, spoke about the project and its origins.

“When I was growing up in Czechoslovakia, there were all these singers and underground poets that were very important to us, and among whom Villon was widely admired as a rabble-rousing outsider, a kind of patron saint of these underground artists. When I left and lived in Switzerland, I was a great fan of Klaus Kinski, and he was famous there for his recitations of Villon in these fantastic German translations. He once filled a stadium in Munich, just reading Villon!

“So Villon was just a very well-known figure in Europe. Then later, in my second year at Lewis & Clark, in 2002, I directed The Hour Between Dog and Wolf, a 1980s play based on Villon’s life. That was by a Czech writer writing between the lines — as one did in a communist society — in response to the banning of a folk singer, and it was banned after the first press preview. I translated it and thought it was a good one to do with college students as we were just on the verge of all that mess with the Iraq war.”

Simek went on enthusiastically about Villon’s influence on cultural figures from Charles Bukowski to William Carlos Willams to Bob Dylan.

So, a decade or so ago when he first met Boucherot, it came as a natural assumption that the French actor would be similarly familiar with the poet’s legacy. “I just casually mentioned that we should do something about Villon. He was all excited. But then we forgot about it.”

It took a suggestion from Simek’s wife, a member of the medieval-music ensemble Musica Universalis, that they work on a project together, to bring the Villon idea back to active duty.

Boucherot as François Villon. Photo: Sarah Marguier

The Fertile Ground showing, presented at the 2509, a cozy basement studio in the basement of Simek’s Northeast Portland house, was a highlight of that year’s festival, a thrilling, synergistic integration of music and movement, poetry and storytelling, all centered on a magnetically louche characterization by Boucherot.  

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However, some tragic irony awaited the show’s official opening, set for March 12, 2020. A play redolent with a sense of mortality and a defiant fatalism was cut down by a deadly pandemic.

“I was bummed,” Simek says with a laugh, back at Costello’s earlier this month. 

“‘OK, we’ll do it in May.’ That was my first thought. And really, the beginning of the pandemic was wonderful for me: hanging out in the backyard, long bike rides with my wife…

“I thought, ‘This will work itself out quickly.’ But we were quickly disabused of that notion. Finally we just realized: ‘We’re all fucked. Let’s just sit on it and see what happens.’”

Yet while the artists sat, the art incubated. As commercial and social life began to open up again in May and June of this year, before the surge of the Delta variant, Simek, Boucherot and company took up the project again. Bloomsbury Fine Antiques — originally to serve as an evocative setting for what Simek has called the “lyricism and lechery” of the piece — no longer was available, but the aptly named Shoebox was. Quickly, their excitement returned as they returned to work on the piece in July.

“There is a sort of germination process,” Simek says. “You become more at ease with it and you discover new things. I think we understand the character and the show better. Strangely enough, we found more humor in it.”

That humor, however, tends toward the dark variety. How else could it be in a time so shadowed by turmoil, illness and death — whether Villon’s time or our own? Simek had argued persuasively for Villon’s continued relevance even before Covid-19 spread dangerously throughout the world. Now — amid the disruptions of police violence, mass social-justice protests, increasing gun violence, the ever-more-visible crisis of homelessness, and so on —  the thematic concerns of Danse Macabre feel especially timely, almost uncomfortably present.

“Paris in the 15th century was a shit show,” in Simek’s not-so-delicate description, “decaying, living in the shadow of all kinds of tragedies. So in Villon’s work, there’s a strain that goes through it all of social protest.”

Then, of course, there is the eternal relevance of death, brought into even sharper relief as the news continues to carry daily tallies of Covid fatalities.

“No man alive can combat death, or win a court’s reprieve from it,” warns Boucherot’s Villon. Adds Simek: “I think because a lot of the show is about death and dying (the timing) makes it even more poignant.”

Making music for the Dance Macabre. Photo: Sarah Margulies

Much of Villon’s Testament, the epic semi-autobiographical poem that Simek and Boucherot have used as the basis of Danse Macabre, is at once eloquent and in-your-face about the ravages of time and the inevitable end of it all. The show takes the form of a sort of loose-limbed monologue by Villon, as if he were regaling a crowded tavern with his misadventures and musings, his losses and longings, with an at-once melodious and spiky-sounding house band providing accompaniment and occasional backtalk. But its most striking feature is another creature who stalks the stage alongside Villon. A puppet not so much manipulated as inhabited by Briana Ratterman Trevithick, it sports a gray grinning/grimacing skull mask, a black cape with a strip of fur down the back, and long appendages like tree branches. Dancing silently through the confined space, it is creepy yet somehow seductive.

“It’s the dark presence, the alter-ego, the angel of death — all these things that have to do with the inner aspects of the individual and also with, just, the absurd darkness that surrounds us,” Simek explains.

Embracing both the absurdity and the humor, he adds, “I have heard of a smartphone app that, for a few dollars, sends you a text at entirely random times: ‘You will die.’ 

“I have become very at ease with all of that. I’m not talking about fatalism, but if I were to drop dead tomorrow it would be a drag, but I lived finely and did interesting things; so I’d not look forward to it but also not have regrets. And I have this great curiosity. It’s the second-most-important moment of your life!”

September 16, 2021, a year and a half later than originally planned, Danse Macabre: the Testament of Francois Villon opened at the Shoebox. Having shown their Covid-vaccination cards and donned their facemasks, 35 patrons sat amid the chandeliers, candelabra and small tables lining the narrow performance space, social distancing little more possible here than amid the piles of bones in the Paris Catacombs that Villon at one point remarks upon (“…lordly ranks stripped away, no one calls ‘clerk’ or ‘master’ here.”).

“We’re here,” says Hand2Mouth artistic director Jonathan Walters in his introduction, “because these remarkable artists didn’t give up on an idea.” And he, too, asserts that “this idea of what it means to be human, from 500 years ago, is even more relevant than it was 18 months ago.”

Boucherot begins his performance speaking in an antiquated French before switching to English to declare, “With this, I live on in memory!” Proudly scruffy, in hoodie and black leather jacket, he plays a cat-and-mouse game with his own self-image, proclaiming both his innocence and his abjectness (“I would cry out the verdict myself. But hardship makes men go astray.”). He’s a punk-rock raconteuer with a ready wit and a sly wink, even as he faces down dilemmas physical, moral and existential.

The music, darkly sweet, played on cimbalom and crumhorn, pipes and recorders, amplifies both the bittersweet backdrop and the life-affirming, almost hedonistic thrust of Villon’s words, and when Boucherot grabs a mic to sing along in a sandpaper baritone, he makes Villon appear a proud progenitor of Serge Gainsbourg and Johnny Hallyday, Richard Hell and Tom Waits. All that’s missing to feel like we’re in some timeless tavern of the joyfully damned is some jugs of cheap wine and flagons of dark ale; perhaps a few glasses of purloined Armangac. 

All good, and bad, things come to an end. Photo: Sarah Marguier

And then — and always — there is that shadowy presence, Ratterman Trevithick’s Dark Angel puppet, its movements now spasmodic and awkward, edged with anger; now graceful, pleading, elegaic.

At last comes Villon’s final testament. “I know everything but myself,” he declares. And with that he lifts a veil from the face of his other, and with a kiss, he weds.

Does he wed death? Or is it life?

Yes.

***

  • Danse Macabre: The Testimony of François Villon has added a performance at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 3, because of demand, and may revive the show later this fall. Performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, Sept. 30-Oct. 2, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 3, at the Shoebox, 2110 S.E. 10th Ave., Portland are sold out, but you can get tickets for the added Sunday show or be added to a waiting list for others by calling 503-217-4202 or emailing mail@hand2mouththeatre.org.

About the author
Editor

Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.

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