One of the downsides of flying into Paris for a short holiday during the longest transit strike in the city’s history — 36 days as of Jan. 9, and counting — is that the lack of buses and the Metro forces you to walk a lot. The upside is that walking around a city you think you know, having lived in Paris during my post-student years, and as a frequent return visitor, is that you discover new things.
One of those, during a five-day visit starting on New Year’s Day, was the theatre district on and off the Grands Boulevards, from Place de l’Opera to Republique. I knew there was live theatre but I’d no idea how much. The area is teeming with theatres on the boulevards and in the warrens of smaller streets branching off. A poster advertising what was showing in the Paris theatre, seen briefly from a moving Metro train (yes, there were some), had something like 30 listings. Plus, with most of the transit system shut down, and smart Parisians who’d made it home choosing to stay there, tickets were plentiful and cheap. So my wife Pat and I went.
Judging from two of the plays, the influence of George Feydeau, the vaudevillian and Belle Epoque playwright who was the talk of Paris at the turn of the 19th century, remains strong. Feydeau went in for broad farce laced with adultery, sexual innuendo and mistaken identity. That pretty much sums up the plot of “Pere ou Fils” (Father or Son) at Theatre de la Renaissance.
The “or” is a dead giveaway, since what happens is that a stuffy, overweight conservative politician and his bohemian, loft-living, weed-smoking artist son wake up one morning to discover they’ve exchanged bodies. This happens after an argument in which the father taunts the son, saying he has no idea how difficult it is to be him. They eventually change back but in the meantime there are madcap complications, such as the father in the artist’s body having to fend off the amorous advances of the son’s girlfriend. Or the son, in the father’s body, repeatedly addressing his mother, from whom the father is divorced, as “maman”. This does not go down well with the lady in question.
The highlight is a television interview that the politician father has agreed to do, but which is complicated because his son is inhabiting his body. So they do the interview together and all of the bad blood between them, over the breakup of the father’s marriage, the father’s disapproval of his son’s bohemian lifestyle, comes tumbling out on live TV — plus foul language. It is a fiasco but in the modern way of all things Kardashian and Trump, the father’s approval ratings shoot up.
A similar subtext emerges in “A Vrai Dire” (To Tell the Truth), Theatre du Gymnase, which opens with a snapshot of a society where everyone tells the truth all the time, no matter how inconvenient or harmful. Advertisements on television say how bad products are, the nightly news paints a bleak portrait of how little the government is doing to fix anything. That is, until Sam, a young man who is out of luck in love, pronounces the first lie. He discovers that instead of having to admit everything is bad, he can pretend it’s all fine. The president hears about Sam’s special talent and makes him his advisor to instruct him how to lie. Sure enough, his poll ratings soar.
Feydeau could probably not have imagined a world in which farce had moved out of the salons and hotel rooms in which he set his plays, and into the real world of politics. But he would have recognised farce when he saw it — and been pleased by how the Paris theatre captures the moment.
— By Michael Roddy