Entertainment Theater

‘Bérénice’ Evaluation: Crushed by Isabelle Huppert’s Star Energy

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The Isabelle Huppert automobile is a curious subgenre of French theater. At this level, its substances have grown predictable: They embrace a high-profile male director, like Robert Wilson or Ivo van Hove; a prestigious playhouse; and a central function that casts Huppert as a girl teetering on the sting of cause.

Huppert, 70, has adhered to this components in a various set of performs lately, from Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” to Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie,” and, in New York, Florian Zeller’s “The Mom.” She was the point of interest in all of those, however this season’s entry, a “Bérénice” directed by Romeo Castellucci on the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris, goes a lot additional.

The manufacturing does away with any pretense that it’s about greater than its star. Castellucci and Huppert have equal billing in all publicity materials, all the way down to the ticket stubs, and Huppert’s title is actually embroidered into the curtains that body the stage. Among the sentences that adorn them are barely legible due to the material’s creases, however one in all them, a quote from a playbill interview with Castellucci, describes Huppert as “the synecdoche of theater.”

Underneath the circumstances, don’t count on to truly hear a lot of “Bérénice,” a 1670 tragedy by Jean Racine that’s broadly thought of one of many biggest performs in French. For starters, many of the characters have fallen by the wayside. Huppert is the one performer who speaks, delivering Racine’s alexandrine verse to an empty stage — or, in a single scene, to a washer.

Racine’s play presents a basic alternative between love and obligation: Titus, who’s about to turn out to be the emperor of Rome, lives with Bérénice, the queen of Judaea. Customized dictates {that a} foreigner can not turn out to be empress, nevertheless, and Titus renounces their love, leaving Bérénice shattered.

Right here, a silent, model-like Titus, performed by Cheikh Kébé, hardly crosses paths with Bérénice. (Think about being forged as Huppert’s love curiosity and solely wanting her within the eyes throughout the curtain calls.) Kébé solely materializes for just a few wordless scenes, together with Giovanni Manzo as Antiochus, a detailed buddy of Titus’s who can also be in love with Bérénice.

Collectively, they mime the crowning of Titus with golden laurels, pose and kneel in prayer, and slowly elevate their fists to the empty stage. They’re later joined by a gaggle of 12 males, who carry Titus on a cross and strip bare in a sequence of sluggish tableaux.

This staging alternative isn’t a shock from Castellucci, an experimental Italian director who has amassed a cult following in Europe. Whereas he’s greatest identified for his opera stagings, his theater works commerce in massive, putting photos, and are shot by means of with symbolism and incessantly devoid of textual content.

Castellucci makes an attempt to use this craft to “Bérénice,” which unfolds behind a scrim, like a barely hazy set of reminiscences. An digital soundscape performs up the unreality of the motion. Incongruous props are generally wheeled in, together with a sphinx-like statue, a radiator Huppert hangs onto for a number of minutes, and the aforementioned washer, which seems to be a stand-in for Titus.

If the purpose was to permit Huppert to discover emotional extremes in a vacuum, it really works. One minute, she is a stately queen, one hand raised to her brow in exalted despair, stalking across the stage in luxurious clothes designed by Iris van Herpen. The following, she unleashes a very unhinged power, with strains amplified and distorted to the purpose the place they turn out to be incomprehensible.

Huppert has performed all of this earlier than, and higher, in stage and display screen productions that harnessed her skills for the good thing about a narrative. Right here, she and Castellucci crush “Bérénice” below the load of her presence.

Just one scene, on the very finish, out of the blue brings her out of her consolation zone in a approach that made the viewers sit straight. As she recites Bérénice’s remaining monologues, Huppert begins stammering. Stumbling on phrases, struggling to get them out, she appears newly susceptible — to the purpose that when she stops and sits in silence, wanting left and proper because it ready for a cue, you surprise if one thing has gone flawed.

Then Huppert stands up, begins strolling away and turns again to deal with the viewers. “Don’t take a look at me,” she screams, time and again, earlier than hiding behind her couture sleeve.

The second has nothing to do with Racine, but it was tailor-made to Huppert’s unusual, overpowering stage persona. Lately, it has began to really feel like a caricature of itself, disconnected from different actors when she interacts with them. At this level in her profession, she is the present. Maybe subsequent time, in lieu of “Bérénice,” a director can merely give us “Isabelle.”

By means of March 28 on the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris; theatredelaville-paris.com.