Le Neon Theatre, Arlington's French American troupe, ends its 16-year run this month with a production based on several works by the French novelist Colette. "La Vagabonde" concerns a Parisian music hall performer torn between romance and career. Like earlier Le Neon ventures, it encapsulates all the delights and attendant frustrations of the company's performance style, which emphasizes image and physicality. "La Vagabonde" offers a refreshing break from psychological realism, but any theatergoer in search of a story could lose patience waiting for the thread of narrative to emerge from all the pictures.
Adapters Didier Rousselet and Monica Neagoy -- they also directed -- and their collaborator, Dominique Montet, draw their dialogue directly from Colette, but they clearly have not turned to Aristotle for instructions on how to build a play. So don't look for rising action, climax or a central character to drive the story. In fact, there's not so much a story as a collage of scenes, characters, images, pantomimes and performance pieces, including two lovely solos by vocalist Barbara Papendorp and re-creations of the sensual tableaux vivants that Colette herself performed to a scandalized Paris.
What it all adds up to is an impressionistic form of theatrical archaeology. Thanks to set designer Nicolas Rousselet's suggestive use of Theatre II at Gunston Arts Center, we find ourselves immersed in the world of a 1907 Paris music hall. With cabaret seating and period lighting, and a cutaway stage that offers us a view of the performers in their dressing rooms, the set allows the focal point to shift from performers to patrons and puts the audience amid the confrontations that occur among the various "theater-goers" who turn out for the "show" -- including a lecherous shopkeeper, a puritanical general and a bemused Henri Willy -- Colette's estranged husband.
"La Vagabonde" begins backstage with an extended scene introducing us to a company of nine performers -- including Colette (Montet), her friend and sometime lover Missy, several dancers, a mime, a vocalist and the company's frustrated manager, who attempts to engender interest in a six-week tour of the provinces. From this scene we learn that not much has changed for actors in 100 years. They are short of rent money, angry at the management and eager for a friendly house.
Eventually it's time for the "show" to start, and as the lights go down on the backstage area of the set, they rise on the small stage in front of it, where a series of performances take place, including two tableaux that made Colette notorious. In one, she exposes her breast; in the other, she engages in a sensual dance with another woman. Fights broke out in the music halls where the real Colette first performed these pantomimes. Her stage career itself was a scandal; as the estranged wife of a well-known music critic, she turned to performance to maintain her independence.
It's an interesting history, and seeing Colette's performances re-created is entertaining as well as enlightening. But what these various vignettes and music hall acts all build to is another question. And perhaps it's the wrong question to ask of a theater as unconcerned with traditional dramatic structure as Le Neon. Still, I can't help thinking that "La Vagabonde" falls short of its potential. How powerful it could have been if the directors were more willing to flex their impressive stylistic muscle in service of a text with a central, driving action, clearly defined characters and a resolution that springs from the efforts of those characters to achieve their desires -- a text otherwise known as a play.
La Vagabonde, by Colette. Adapted and directed by Didier Rousselet and Monica Neagoy, with Dominique Montet as co-adapter. Costumes, Jacqueline Rebok; lighting, Ayun Ferocha; musicians, Lisa Robinson on piano, Donnette Rimmer on violin and Luke Johnson on bass. With Rousselet, Neagoy, Gae Schmitt, Ellie Nicoll, Alisa Bernstein, Kim Curtis, David Gaines, Andy White, Douglas Watson, Carl Henningsen, Ed Johnson, Wendy Wilmer, Stefan Aleksander, Joan Kelley, Delphine Contessa and Aurelia Mari. At Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington, through April 20. Call 703-243-6366.