3/24/2023 VIVE LA FONTAINE! Théâtre du Rêve
FABULISTE FABULEAUX (FABULOUS FABULIST)
Jean de la Fontaine was a French Fabulist (one who writes Fables) and Poet, who lived and (apparently) thrived from 1621 through 1695. He translated into French dozens of the fables of Aesop, putting his own spin on them and bringing their lessons to centuries of children.
A few years back, Théâtre du Rêve’s Adam Fristoe, Shaun Whitley, Park Krausen and Carolyn Cook collected a number of those fables and fashioned then into a French-language stage entertainment. Now, Ms. Cook has gathered a French fluent cast and launched Vive la Fontaine! for us.
Let me state up front that I am not fluent in French. I can pick out a word here and there, but that’s all. Some portions of this show are translated into English and projected as supertitles for those of us who took Latin and German as younglings. Unfortunately, my old man eyes were too weak to make out any of them, so I should have been left in the dark.
But Théâtre du Rêve is nothing if not inclusive. They are about celebrating the French language and stage tradition, not requiring it as a prerequisite. So, even though I could not understand most of what was being said, I COULD understand (and enjoy) what was going on. It helps that most of the fables are familiar through Aesop and other authors. It REALLY helps that Vive la Fontaine! is structured with song and dance and other extra-lingual means of communicating, and is a total lark (or, une alouette totale, if you will) from start to finish.
A troupe of four wandering minstrels enters the playing area only to discover a trunk of props and costumes and a waiting audience. They launch into the tales, showing us elegantly scribed title cards and trying to explain the English versions of the titles, in spite of (apparently) being as ignorant of English as I am of French. We see some form of theatrical presentation of that tale – a skit, a shadow puppet show, a marionette show, a rap battle, even a poetry slam. Each tale is followed by another form – a song, a dance, an accordion solo, a sing-along. (BTW kudos to the cast for accompanying one number on one guitar with all four crowded around tapping rhythm or strumming tempo or fingering a solo. Call it “Song for Eight Hands on One Guitar.”
In essence, there are four ways into the stories – our knowledge of the fable itself, the dramatic recreation, and the musical coda are all accessible to everyone. Knowledge of French is almost superfluous (a few one-line gags and jokes that went over my head notwithstanding).
So which fables do we get to see? There are the obvious ones – “The Tortoise and the Hare”, “The Fox and the Crow”, “The Ant and the Grasshopper.” But there were a few new ones that I looked up afterwards – the whimsically diverting “Death and Woodman”, “The Frog Who Wanted to Grow as Big as an Ox” (with an expectedly explosive finale), and “The Wolf and the Lamb”, performed by only the actors’ eyes.
This is a multi-talented cast – Chris Kayser, Dionna D. Davis, Kevin Qian (who, according to his Bio, learned both French and the Accordion for this production), And Elianes Marianes – all of whom (of course) play multiple roles and instruments and critters (Oh my), sing in multiple styles, and engage the audience with every trick in the wandering troupe repertoire. They are captivating and imaginative and often hysterically funny.
Kudos also to director Carolyn Cook for finding so many ways to tell these stories, so many modes of music and entertainment to keep us diverted. I also liked Gabrielle Stephenson’s set which suggest nothing less than a Paris street corner converted into a mini-stage and puppet theatre, complete with streetlights and ceiling twinklers (Elisabeth Cooper was responsible for the elegantly simple lighting design). Jennifer Schottstaedt’s beautiful costumes also carried a high portion of the story-telling weight.
Vive La Fontaine! is (I assume) a treat for Francophiles, and those comfortably fluent in the language. That it is also a treat for those of us not-so-fluent is a tribute to the excellence of the direction, the talent of the performers, the elegance of the design, and the simplicity of the tales themselves.
Vive le Théâtre du Rêve !
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #TdRFontaine)