Paradise Now

One always seems to exist in the worst age in human history. Whether you wish to have been a milkmaid in a quiet Italian village or just a bumbling caveman in pelts, contemporary life is clouded by romanticized views of a "simpler" time, a better time. Parisian writer and director Pascal Rambert, however, posits the opposite in his current work, Paradis (Unfolding Time). What if we are living in paradise right now? Or, in his own words, "what you're now watching you will someday remember as a marvelous world, while today you think it's hell because paradise was what came before." As part of the five-month Act French festival, which brings new theater from France to New York, Paradis poses grandiose, existential questions in its four-night stint at the Dance Theater Workshop.

Eleven actors enter the wide, black stage wearing winter coats, jeans, boots. They slowly remove all of their clothes and stand naked before the audience. (The reverse Edenic gesture is one nod throughout the evening to images of paradise.) Upstage, a flag of yellow, green, and pink waves tirelessly for the duration of the show. The actors unfurl a large, yellow mat and place it center stage. This motif is the first of three, which follow as green and then pink.

This "yellow" scene is splashed with other colors—blue swivel chairs, multicolor blankets, black and silver microphones that dangle from the ceiling. The stage is lighted with fluorescent lights both above the stage and upstage, facing the audience. The naked bunch dart about the space, scattering like lost children in search of their mother. One beautiful woman stands on tiptoes to speak into a mike. A succession of rapid-fire questions begins in French-tinged English, "How do you begin? Do you begin like that? What do you think we want?"

Paradis is enervatingly frenetic and endearingly French. Few traces of American "comic relief" are found in this heavyhearted piece. "Why are we so alone?" is asked more than once. The second segment, noted by a green mat placed center stage, carries the weight of the work. Two small projection screens flank the mat—one of famous paintings of nude women, the other a video of an escalator with random riders. This postmodern work (or is it "late"-modern now?) pays homage to France's best existential thinkers from the theater wings: Sartre, Artaud, Lecoq.

Kate Moran stands out as the only American actress and as one of the central "characters" in the ensemble. It is she who has her heart literally torn out during the green scene. There is much tumbling and various headstands. Some movements are done in sync, but there is little in the way of overt choreography.

Rambert wants to make a terribly beautiful statement, and to some level he succeeds. Still, feeling the loss of paradise—or confronting the possibility that we are blind to a utopia within our grasp—should seem more harrowing and less clinical. The sparse, cloying text is interwoven with movement, and words are passed from actor to actor like a hot potato.

The final, pink scene begins with a few statements, one of which is "You are the product. It's scary. You will see." Even more questions are posed toward the end: "Do you love me? Could you? Would you? Why did you expel me from the center?" Rambert's text alludes to Darwin and Copernicus as those whose findings have pushed human beings out of the center of the universe to the fringe. He adds that genetic engineering is the next step in removing us farther from the coveted middle. As fringe theater, Paradis seems to have found its proper place in the theater universe.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post