After 50 productions over 16 years, Arlington's Le Neon Theatre is bidding adieu as founders and directors Monica Neagoy and Didier Rousselet move on to new challenges.
Dedicated to multicultural French-American theater, Le Neon crafted an award-winning body of work notable for markedly stylized, sometimes cinematically staged performances using idiosyncratic acting methods. The end comes with an original adaptation of the work of Colette, France's early feminist and often controversial writer and performance artist.
Le Neon has created a cabaret setting in the Gunston Arts Center's Theatre Two, turning the black-box space into a Parisian music hall, circa 1907, for "La Vagabonde" or "The Backstage of the Music-Hall."
The work is a simultaneous look at the bleak backstage life of cabaret performers and the decision by Colette to put her career ahead of her personal life. It is adapted by Dominique Montet, along with Neagoy and Rousselet, from Colette's autobiographical novels.
Actors are seated at tables alongside the audience, their placement designed to augment a realistic atmosphere. Mixed into the play are half a dozen period songs, sung mostly by Barbara Papendorp in the role of Mademoiselle Violette, and several examples of Colette's performance art.
"La Vagabonde" thus has all the elements in place for a lively experience recreating the early 1900s "cafes-concerts" experience. All that is needed is a spark to set the machinery in motion. But the show strangely lacks energy and is paced so very slowly and with so few dynamics that the life is all but drained out of it, a sad example of artists self-indulgently focusing on their style at the expense of dramatic impact.
The trouble is evident immediately as the production fails to get underway. The audience patiently stares and stares at a still-life tableau of the backstage life of performers before a show. Actors and dancers are frozen in various poses, moving ever so slightly and in unison once every couple of minutes. This insult to the concept of "live" theater stretches to ridiculous length, about 12 minutes of nothingness.
Eventually, the shifts in pose are accompanied by single piano notes, which gradually transform into simple chords as the actors slowly begin movement. Unfortunately, the cast never seems to rebound from this repression of vitality, and the pace of the play mostly remains seriously slow and lifeless until the end.
Colette, portrayed here by Montet, was famous for staging "tableaux vivants" ("living pictures"), but the key word for her was "living." Several of these are re-created here, and although they are without dialogue, they are the highlights of "La Vagabonde," as the cast momentarily comes to life.
"Reve d'Egypte" ("Egyptian Dream") and "La Chair" ("The Flesh") provoked controversy in their time, depicted here in the reactions by the characters placed at tables. Unfortunately, the "controversy" cuts each entertaining tableau short.
"Reve d' Egypte" ends when a patron objects to a lesbian seduction involving Colette as an ancient Egyptian queen and an androgynous European tomb raider, played by Gae Schmitt as Colette's lover, Missy.
"La Chair" ceases when the "audience" is stunned (into slow motion, again) by the site of Colette's bare breast, exposed during a compelling, ballet-like sequence depicting a tragic lover's triangle among Montet and Neagoy, as dancer La Roussalka, and Rousselet, as company director Brague.
The second act, which starts by going straight into the lovely song "Envoi des Fleurs" ("A Bunch of Flowers") is a bit more vigorous than the first, but the characterizations remain flat and one-dimensional, more suited to vignette than full-length play. The production ends with the cast filing out through the audience, singing "Les Temps des Cerises" ("When Ripe Cherries Bloom"), a poignant au revoir to Le Neon.
"La Vagabonde," performed by Le Neon Theatre, continues through April 20 at The Gunston Arts Center's Theatre Two, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. Showtime is 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, with matinees at 4 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. For reservations, call 703-243-6366.