In charming French festivals, poverty is only on stage

Two tower events during France’s summer festival season each July, taking place in cities less than 50 miles apart. The first, the Avignon Festival, is a boisterous, crowded celebration of theatre; The other, the Festival of Aix-en-Provence, offers a softer operatic line-up.

This week, wealthy audiences sat down to the opening productions at both festivals. Aix, instead of an opera singer, unusually welcomed actors from the Comédie Française, France’s most famous theatrical troupe, for “Trio Opera” by Thomas Ostermeyer; In Avignon, the In Vitro group theater has been supplemented by some new faces of the “Luxury” by Julie Delaquet.

Both productions touched on a topic that was appropriately awkward for those rich crowds: poverty.

Since France has seen the cost of living skyrocket over the past year, this might seem like an appropriate nod to the times. However, few things are more complicated on stage than asking actors—a profession in which the working class is not well represented—to act “poor”.

In this event, the Comédie-Française fared better than the Deliquet actors, if only because Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s 1928 “The Threepenny Opera” is a riotous satire. Its immoral criminals and beggars are transcendent inventions, and Ostermeyer’s visually subdued production derives most of its pleasures from letting its cast’s impressive talents out.

“Luxury” is another matter. It’s a close adaptation of a 1975 thriller documentary by Frederick Wiseman, who brought his cameras into a New York healthcare center and testified as prosecutors desperately grappled with a rigorous regimen. Weismann himself had long wanted to see the material translated on stage, and brought the idea to Deliques, director of the Théâtre Gérard Philippe in Saint-Denis, France.

However, “Luxury”, which featured the inaugural tribute in Avignon with a dance production, “GROOVE” by Bento Dembélé, looks as silly on stage as it affects on screen. No one involved seems to have grasped the intractable problem: reenacting the hardships of real people with performers turns these people into characters, and so their stories lose the ring of truth. Fostering the same empathy takes more work, but here Delicé seems reluctant to get involved.

It doesn’t help here that Weizmann’s film’s unaffected black-and-white cinematography is replaced by a Technicolor recreation of a school gym, including a bright blue floor that stretches across the vast outdoor stage of the Cour d’Honneur, Avignon’s most imposing performance venue. It’s almost as if the sitcom “That 70s Show” chose to deal with welfare benefits, complete with obviously good, new costumes. (Nothing says “my children are about to starve” like a neatly arranged red hat.)

The stories told in Weisman’s film here are loosely reorganized into one day in the life of a welfare center, as case workers deal with one grumpy demander after another. A man lost his home in a fire. Two recovering addicts try to get their lives back on track. A pregnant woman is required to provide medical evidence of her condition, while an older lady’s husband prevents her examinations.

There are comical moments in the movie, but in the theatrical version of Deliquet, it starts to feel involuntarily comical. The active delivery of the splint may be due to their need for display in the cavernous space, which accommodates about 2,000 spectators. The actors playing the plaintiffs use their moments in the spotlight to articulate the injustices of the system, rather than simply acting it out, as Weizmann’s protégés have so effectively done.

Luxury means well, and it’s easy to see why the new director of the Avignon Festival, Tiago Rodrigues, has chosen to put the project in such a prestigious position. It serves as a statement of change after the faltering tenure of its predecessor, Olivier B. Deliques is only the second female director to land a Cour d’Honneur slot in the Avignon Festival’s 76-year history.

Deliquet deserves it: they are one of the best stage-makers in France, and have had a string of successes to their name. However, she has great respect for Weizmann’s source material on “Luxury”. Some directors, such as Alexander Zeldin with his “Inequality” trilogy, have found the right tone in recent years to deal with the lives of the disadvantaged, but “Luxury” seems to play on poverty.

At Aix, “The Threepenny Opera” may not be an unqualified triumph for its German director Ostermeier, but at least the show’s list of low-life misfits is sumptuously represented and, aided by Alexandre Pateau’s sharp neo-French translation, appears as it was meant to be. To be: sarcastic, charismatic, brilliantly individualistic.

Christian Heck and Veronique Vella are energetic and absurdly intelligent as the shallow Mr. and Mrs. Peachum, who set out to take down notorious criminal Macheath for eloping with their daughter, Polly. Not all actors are equally good singers, so Villa’s powerful voice is an asset here. So too are the vocal talents of Marie Aubert, newly recruited to the Comédie-Française and trained singer who, in the role of Polly, transforms “Pirate Jenny” into a standout.

Well-crafted scenes come thick and fast in the first half, but the energy wears off later on. It’s as if Ostermeyer, directed for the first time in an operatic context, never really amounted to much. The set designs are minimalistic: four microphones below the stage, a black podium behind the actors, and a few screens above it displaying repetitive collages inspired by Russian constructivism. On the main stage of the Comédie-Française in Paris, where the production will move in the fall, the company could simply repurpose the very similar set from Ivo van Hove’s 2022 “Tartuffe”.

Maxime Pascal leads his own ensemble, Le Balcon, which plays the part of the cast well: at one point, mic-wielding musician Benjamin Lavergne—a whimsical take on corrupt cop Tiger Brown—has inadvertently fallen into the pit. Pascal’s reformulation, by adding electronic instruments, gives an interesting edge to the scathing impetus of Weill’s score.

As in Avignon, the production was staged on an open-air stage of historical importance, on the square of the Palais des Archives, where the festival was born in 1948. While it is of reasonable size compared to the Cour d’Honneur, it is a prestigious venue, with paying members Audiences are up to $180 for the privilege of watching “The Threepenny Opera.”

As with “Luxury,” there is a surprise in watching poor characters in such rare company. But this is the reality of the majestic theater today.