PARIS — In countries where live performances have resumed, masked audiences have become a familiar — if still curious — sight. Face coverings for actors are another matter, however: How can performers project their voices and emotions, many theater professionals have asked, with more than half their faces obscured?
The itinerant company Les Tréteaux de France has taken up the challenge — and while performing a 17th-century verse play, no less. Last week, in Cergy, a suburb to the west of Paris, seven masked actors traded alexandrines in Racine’s “Britannicus,” a tragedy charting the Roman emperor Nero’s descent into violent lunacy after he abducts the fiancée of Britannicus, his half brother.
A verse prologue co-written by the cast and the director, Robin Renucci, attempted to explain the unusual costumes. Rome, they said in character before the show started, had been hit by a plague, and masks were a necessity.
The warning felt superfluous, since masks are a time-honored theater tradition. The main difference is that the current pandemic requires the mouth to be covered, whereas commedia dell’arte-style half-masks are typically designed to exaggerate the forehead, the eyes and the nose, leaving the mouth unobstructed.
In a phone interview, Renucci, who has been at the helm of Les Tréteaux de France since 2011, said that the cast of “Britannicus” started rehearsing with their new props in May, as soon as lockdown ended in France. Acting with a mask is not just a matter of habit. When a performer speaks a lot onstage, Renucci said, masks become damp and stick to the skin, so each cast member goes through four or five of them over a two-hour performance. They have experimented with different fabrics: While many wear cotton masks, one actress, Nadine Darmon (who plays Agrippine), switched to polyamide during the run in Cergy, to test the effect on the sound.
Add to that persistent rain in Cergy, where “Britannicus” was performed under a tent at an outdoor activities center, and during the first few scenes, it took some effort to latch onto the solemn, deliberate rhythm of Racine’s verse. The actors’ voices sounded muffled, with duller consonants, and several performers were forced to regularly nudge their masks — sliding down their chins with every monologue — back into place.
Yet soon enough, my ear adjusted. We were seated on all four sides of the small stage, and this proximity between cast and audience helped alleviate the muffling effect. The actors betrayed very little discomfort — no small feat considering that breathing in Racine’s plays is tied to the ebb and flow of the alexandrines.
While performers who can speak volumes with their eyes (like Louise Legendre, captivating as Junie, Britannicus’s fiancée) are at an advantage when masked, other details also come to the fore when facial expressiveness is limited. In Renucci’s contemporary production, Nero and his mother, Agrippine, who wear ostentatious contemporary prints and jewelry, are Italian mafia figures. As Nero, Tariq Bettahar conveyed the emperor’s callousness with purposeful gestures: scratching his crotch and allowing his hand to rest under his shirt.
In the final minutes of “Britannicus,” Renucci does allow some characters to remove their masks, symbolically, as they come clean about their feelings. I was taken aback to find that several actors suddenly looked very different. The faces I had mentally sketched in based on their eyes were often wrong, perhaps because their characters colored the audience’s perception of them. Talk about stage illusion; this is an effect we should perhaps get used to in our newly masked lives, too.
“Britannicus” was part of a summer season staged by Les Tréteaux de France at three outdoor recreation centers in suburban cities (after Draveil, in late July, and Cergy, the company moves to St.-Quentin-en-Yvelines). Visitors who come for the kayaking, rowing and climbing can see free performances and attend theater workshops throughout the day, in a program funded by the Paris region.
Unusual settings are the bread and butter of Les Tréteaux de France, the only national dramatic center in France without a stage to call its own. Since its inception in 1959, the company has been a touring venture and typically performs for communities underserved by France’s network of performance venues. As Renucci put it: “The goal is to go where people who don’t typically go to the theater are.”
The run in Cergy illustrated the uncertainty that is now common for artists. Before “Britannicus” opened, two performances of a new play, Simon Grangeat’s “Faire Forêt (Variations Bartleby),” directed by Solenn Goix, were canceled at the last minute because a performer had developed symptoms consistent with Covid-19.
It turned out to be pharyngitis, but the damage was done. Similar scenarios are likely to play out in other venues in the coming months, as companies adjust to a safety-first approach.
Still, even for Les Tréteaux de France, masks are unusual. The company employs four full-time actors and 15 or so regular freelancers, but not all productions are created in-house, and each creative team is free to set the rules. Alongside “Britannicus” and “Faire Forêt (Variations Bartleby),” several family-friendly shows, including Olivier Letellier’s excellent “Venavi,” seen last month at the Théâtre des Abbesses in Paris, were recently staged without face coverings.
There wasn’t much need for them in “Frissons,” a deft story about sibling relationships created by Magali Mougel and Johanny Bert. The two actors, Adrien Spone and Vincent Delétang (alternating with Yann Raballand), barely open their mouths over the course of 45 minutes. “Frissons” is all about the inner monologues of two children, described in the play as the “little voices” in their heads. The audience hears them in voice-over, but there are no conspicuous speakers onstage.
Instead, the sound ingeniously moves with the performers, who are outfitted with body mics. Through careful choreography, they tell the story of Anis, a boy whose two mothers adopt another child, Elias. Spone, a trained dancer, proved especially nimble as Anis, with crisp lines and an uncontrived ability to convey emotions through mime. The jolly set design — a large pyramid of teddy bears — helped endear “Frissons” to the many children in attendance, too.
While “Frissons” was all about movement, another offering, “The Box” (“La Boîte”), brought disembodied voices. The guest company Les Allumettes Associées set up a makeshift confessional near the entrance of the activities center, where one person at a time could hear an actor whisper a text of their choice from behind a screen.
The concept is perfect for social distancing, and for a few minutes inside the “box,” I relished the anonymous performer’s clear, unimpeded delivery of a nostalgic poem by Victor Hugo, “Vieille Chanson du Jeune Temps.” Post-pandemic theater may involve some trade-offs, but constraints have a way of breeding creativity.
Les Tréteaux de France/L’Île-de-France Fête le Théâtre. Multiple shows, St.-Quentin-en-Yvelines, through Aug. 30.
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