It is as if Ariane Mnouchkine, the renowned Parisian stage director, could not decide which story of suffering she most wanted to tell. So in "Le Dernier Caravanserail," her teeming, exasperating, startling hopscotch of the lives of refugees and the miseries heaped on them around the world, she tries to tell them all.
Her need to record everything, to show everything, is both the great strength and weakness of this sprawling work, related under a tent on Manhattan's West Side by 42 performers virtually all playing multiple roles -- one actor alone plays a dozen parts -- in a series of 62 scenes that unfold in two parts and six hours.
The individual tales, of Afghans and Chechens, Iranians and Russians, Kurds and Bosnians, entwine, separate, backtrack and break off in a relentless, mournful cascade.
"We recount in disorder," a voice-over says in one of the many languages the production speaks, all of which are translated into English supertitles. It is the chaotic drive of the newly traumatized and chronically uprooted that Mnouchkine seeks to reflect in this obsessive, encyclopedic chronicle of the basic human instincts for escape and survival.
"Le Dernier Caravanserail" -- which means "The Last Caravansary," or inn -- is the centerpiece of the summer's Lincoln Center Festival, the annual event at which the institution offers an immersion in global culture. The opportunity in the United States to see one of the epic works by the 66-year-old Mnouchkine, herself an institution in France, does not come very often; this is only the third time in its 40-year history that her Theatre du Soleil has paid a visit stateside, and the first such foray since 1992, when she staged a cycle of plays by Aeschylus and Euripides at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
This time, her sights are set on the modern world. "Le Dernier Caravanserail" is based on the field work by Mnouchkine and other company members to investigate the fates of refugees from various countries and the conditions in the camps in places including France and Australia. The production, combining the words of real people with vignettes improvised by the company, is staged on rolling platforms. (The actors are wheeled around on the sort of carts used to move pianos -- a conceit intended to reflect the transitory nature of the refugees' lives.) The drama has a clear consciousness-raising mission. It's crusading journalism -- with curtain calls added.
The play's extravagant length is itself a statement: Big problem requires long show! What's six neck-crimping hours on a stiff bench, the director seems to ask, compared with the years of limbo and terror that the disenfranchised must endure?
Mnouchkine knows a thing or two about spectacle. Each half of this massive production -- if you see it in one day, there's a dinner break -- begins with an image of surging water, ingeniously realized. The first part starts with Kirghiz and Kazakh travelers, briefly laying aside their mutual antagonism to cross a treacherous river in Central Asia; the second with a load of boat people trying to ride out a boiling storm off the coast of Australia.
What seems to be an acre of fabric is stretched across the expansive stage and made to pound like the rapids of the river and heave like the ocean. Bodies flung overboard are made to bob in the sea swells, and a giant wave conjures chilling associations with the recent Asian tsunami.
The tide that most interests Mnouchkine, however, is the human one, and again and again throughout "Le Dernier Caravanserail" we are provided evidence of global tipping points, the moments at which economic privation (in Moscow) or political repression (Tehran) or a regime's physical brutality (Kabul) trigger the decision to flee across mountains, rivers and oceans.
Theatre du Soleil unveils for us a diaspora of desperation: a Russian girl in Calais, cruelly enslaved by her pimp; a bridesmaid kidnapped in Serbia; a Chechen refugee forced into menial labor in a London sweatshop; an Iraqi exile ensnared in Kafkaesque detention. Some of the portraits in this gallery are deeply absorbing, as in the case of a young Iranian, whose adoring father demands she leave the country after she participates in a public demonstration.
Others are marred by high-handed editorializing. The defiance of an African refugee, accidentally smothered to death in a jetway by French officials trying to force him onto a plane, is juxtaposed with a little girl of means, who petulantly refuses her mother's entreaties to board the aircraft.
Like an overzealous prosecutor, Mnouchkine files exhibit after exhibit. "Counselor, enough!" you find yourself thinking from time to time. Must every one of these witnesses be called? The director is not worrying much about what a spectator needs, in terms of narrative compression and the maintenance of interest. For all the stories we're told, all the horrors revealed, there's too little development of any one of them.
At moments, "Le Dernier Caravanserail" brilliantly shoves its indignation at us. But we're shown so many faces that they remain, to the end, pretty much faceless.
Le Dernier Caravanserail (The Last Caravansary), conceived and directed by Ariane Mnouchkine. Music, Jean-Jacques Lemetre; Set, Guy-Claude Francois; set pieces, Serge Nicolai, Duccio Bellugi-Vannuccini; costumes, Marie-Helene Bouvet, Nathalie Thomas, Annie Tran; lighting, Cecile Allegoedt, Carlos Obregon, Cedric Baudic, Simon Andre. Approximately six hours, in two parts. Through Sunday at Lincoln Center Festival, 62nd Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue, New York. Call 212-721-6500 or visit www.lincolncenter.org.