Call it going out with a bang: After 16 seasons and 50 productions, Le Neon Theatre, the "theater with a French touch," brings down the final curtain this month with its farewell production of "La Vagabonde" at the Gunston Arts Center in Arlington. This original production, based on the life and loves of famous French author Colette, features 20 performers, live music, multiple staging levels and many of the stylized signatures -- in movement and mime -- that audiences of Le Neon have come to expect.
"We wanted to welcome every performer who had been a part of our previous productions," says Didier Rousselet, Le Neon's founder. "We wanted to give them one last chance to express themselves."
"And we wanted to do something memorable for our audiences, too," adds co-artistic director Monica Neagoy, who has been working alongside Rousselet for the past 15 years. "This is our finale. When the audience enters the theater this last time, they know they're in for something different."
"La Vagabonde" -- adapted by veteran Le Neon actress Dominique Montet from the autobiographical writings of Colette -- was selected for the final production because it touched on many of the themes near and dear to the theater and provided a showcase for the varied talents of the company.
Set in a Parisian music hall, circa 1907, "La Vagabonde" presents a play within a play. Audiences at Gunston are treated to intimate cafe-style seating and are entertained by traditional music hall fare -- French music, dance, pantomime and tableaux vivants (living pictures) -- on the main stage. At the same time, viewers are given a glimpse, in a second performance area, into the less than glamorous backstage world of the actors as they primp, prepare and, in some cases, gird themselves to perform.
"Staging is like a puzzle," says Neagoy. "We wanted to shift back and forth, putting together the pieces between the two worlds, and then add the audience area as the third performance space, where the different social classes of the time sat together."
Providing continuity between the three performance areas is the figure of Colette, whose real-life scandalous love affairs and artistic endeavors play out both onstage and backstage. "There are universal themes in her work," says Rousselet, who cites Colette's struggle between conformity and originality, and between freedom and security, as issues that drew him to her writing. "Her work is as true today as it was 100 years ago," he says.
"La Vagabonde," like all Le Neon productions, is a multicultural experience: The music hall songs are performed in French -- with translations supplied on every table -- and the dialogue is delivered in English; the pantomime and the stylized movement scenes of the tableaux vivants, a Le Neon staple, transcend language and culture. And don't underestimate the power of a rousing production of the can can to truly evoke the feel of the French music hall at the turn of the last century.
Thematically, says Neagoy, "La Vagabonde" touches on the end of Colette's love affairs (with a man, Maxime, and a woman) and the end of la belle epoque, and it ties in, symbolically, with the end of Le Neon. "Le Neon has been around so long, it's become a Washington staple, like the monuments," says Neagoy. "But, if like the monuments, you've been putting off visiting us because you assume we're always going to be around, see us now, while you still have the chance."
Closing what Neagoy describes as "the only French-American theater in the country" was a difficult decision. "It was a wonderful experience, exhilarating, edifying and rewarding, but it's also exciting to turn the page, to start a new chapter in our lives," says Neagoy, who is leaving to pursue other creative endeavors, primarily with her job at the National Science Foundation. And Rousselet feels an urgency to express himself through writing. "I never had the time before. This is something that is very important to me, and now is the time I can fully concentrate on it."