The Washington Post

At World Stages, ‘Les Souffleurs Commandos Poétiques’ is an inspired artistic intervention

Photos for Tokyo Theatre Company KAZE and French theatre company, Les Souffleurs commandos poetiques’ “Les Soffleurs commandos poetiques.” (Christophe Raynaud de Lage)

Stop. Breathe. Smile. You’re in the hands of angels of tranquillity.

They look fabulous in their individualized black outfits — chic boots here, a bowler there. They’re ultra-hip and cross-cultural, from France and Japan. They move slowly, coolly, among the hundreds of people lined up for something else entirely outside the Kennedy Center late Friday afternoon. They carry delicate black parasols.

Who are they? France’s Les Souffleurs Commandos Poétiques, with Tokyo Theatre Company KAZE. Doing what? Providing an ideal grace note, in random spots all weekend long, to the center’s three-week World Stages international theater festival, which ended Sunday.

One of the women sidles up to you and positions her parasol over your head. You feel strangely, wonderfully protected.

A gentleman descends to one knee, five feet from you. It’s a chivalrous pose. Gently, he raises a long black tube to your ear. For two minutes he murmurs a poem. It’s not for the crowd. It’s just for you.

“Spring is like a perhaps hand,” the voice says. It’s E.E. Cummings. (The voice tells you so. All these voices recite in English.)

“Les souffleurs” means “the whisperers.” The long tubes are called rossignols, the French word for nightingales.

It’s not a “show” — there is no stage, no tickets, no charge — although it’s delightful to behold. (It’s self-titled: “Les Souffleurs Commandos Poétiques.”) And, of course, what can you call this ensemble if not performers?

Two of them guide a small boy from the line; one holds a parasol over him, while the other kneels and recites through the rossignol. The boy grins. So do we, watching. We don’t know what’s being said, but the image alone has a high style and a precise tone — carefully composed and temporarily still, paradoxically public and private, all with a seductive rhythm.

The group describes its work as an artistic intervention and “an endeavor to slow down the world.” You don’t clap when it’s over. You wander on your way, deeply pleased by the brief encounter with these inspired visitors.

First Post byline, 1992; covering theater for the Post since 1999. His book "American Playwriting and the Anti-Political Prejudice" came out in 2014.
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