Natalie Walker once tweeted, “One of the most interesting things about theater is how it shows us all the different ways white families can be sad.” Bajour’s Un Homme Qui Fume C’est Plus Sain, directed by Leslie Bernard, seems to spend much of its run time in this overstuffed repertoire. However, what the work ultimately becomes is simultaneously one of the most ambitious and artistically complete works I’ve seen in the Avignon Off.
The company's talented ensemble of eight actors performs as a group of siblings reuniting for their father’s funeral. One of said siblings isn’t here but, never mind her, there’s a lot of catching up to do. The play then runs through a series of well-rehearsed apparent clichés. A long lost letter causes drama. There’s some light nostalgic talk. Some vague long held grudges apparently bubble to the surface. The play at times becomes something noteworthy when it reaches into its darker tones. One particular scene that strikes my memory features the sole sister, extraordinarily performed by Adèle Zouane, as she is aggressively bullied by her brothers to the point of sexual assault. In terms of plastic staging this moment registers almost as homage to Bausch’s Kontakhof. It works as well here. However, dramatic bright spots aside, this territory still felt far too familiar. During the first hour I fully expected Un Homme Qui Fume C’est Plus Sain to belong to that grouping of cleanly staged and well acted practice runs for promising young companies. Thankfully there’s an eleventh hour shoe drop that crystalizes the dramatic journey into something astonishing.
There are perhaps a couple shifts that could make this work more dramatically synthesized. A hint of the eleventh hour reveal would be welcome. The play is not a mystery, and some sense of the unspoken stakes would go a long way to coloring the action. Also, Leslie Bernard’s penchant for tanzt-theater moments is superb, but mostly reserved for the large group. To have this abstraction sink into the actions of intimate duos or trios would give the reading a greater overall unity. Lastly, the bookends of “Has it started” and “Is it over” is great, for a vaudevillian work. It is distractingly incongruous to an intimate family drama. Lighting design by Julia Riggs is fabulously somber. Sound design by Louis Katorze is mature and unobtrusive and scénographie by Hector Manuel is helpfully utilitarian.
You might say that it sounds like I’m being harder on Un Homme Qui Fume than I am on other works in the Avignon Off. This work simply expects much more of itself, and demands a greater level of critical engagement. It is a piece of artistic ambition to rival anything in the In and how the actors have been able to stage such a sprawling work of theatre within the restrictions of the Avignon Off is frankly beyond belief. There should be every expectation that Bajour will (and should) be a fixture of the French theatrical landscape. Not just a courageous work of drama, Un Homme Qui Fume C’est Plus Sain is a striking introduction and a remarkable assurance of great things to come.