“… And what poet ever sat down
in front of a Titian, pulled out
his versifying tablet and began
to drone? Don’t complain, my dear,
You do what I can only name.
-Frank O’Hara, “To Larry Rivers”
L’effet de Serge unfolds more gracefully than a clockwork rose and the fine tuning is so precise that even in surface randomness it feels like a fire-born distillation of the audience’s life. Better, of course, but purer and while in the vein of the mumblecore filmmakers – Swanberg, Katz, Bujalski – it reaches for emotions they’ve only barely begun to work with, and hits and hits again.
Phillipe Quesne and Vivarium Studios with one set – the living room of an apartment, with glass patio doors and a door on the side, a ping pong table half covered in amateur special effect, magic tricks, and other detritus – conjure a rich inner life and what seems like a pretty thriving social life, and draw a map that show how the two feed each other. The principal actor Gaetan Voruc’h enters dressed as what a child thinks an astronaut looks like, a thin suit of gray and an enormous fishbowl helmet that looks like Pac Man with a light in it, and addresses the audience directly, “Each play ends with a preview of the next. In the last play there were five astronauts, of which I was one,” but also seemingly indifferent, laying the ground rules for the play while roaming the set like some lost alien architecture.
What unfolds is a combination of the physical lovable-cipher comedy of Jacques Tati and a little Samuel Beckett (almost an alternate history Krapp’s Last Tape that shows the character a way out) and a meditation on art that’s not quite like anything I’ve seen before. Every Sunday, Serge’s friends come over and he presents a carefully conceptualized very low budge performance – choreographing a (borrowed) car’s lights and exhaust to Wagner; a remote control car moving behind the audience members to Handel; setting off two bright red flashpots through a complicated balancing act – and says thank you, graciously but a little uncomfortably accepts their compliments, and then says a quiet “You can finish your drink” and leads them out of the house. Even the ritual of bringing them in and finding seats is carefully considered, only certain doors can be used, and handled very politely but also with this quiet reserve.
Between the performances we see him working with the gadgets, coming up with new shows, playing with what he has until an idea strikes - a flying helicopter that’s more metaphor sitting on the table and pure joy when it flies; a hilarious, gorgeous dance with glowsticks done as glasses and a rope set to a melancholy cover of “Billie Jean” – and engaging in the rote physical activity to distract the brain when ideas don’t come that anyone who’s tried to create something is familiar with, in this case playing ping pong by himself.
The way the process and the product and unformed play all feed each other is the perfectly groomed frosting on this piece, and the spongy cake is the way art connects you to people but also keeps you at a distance. People show up more than once, and clearly like Serge very much, but there’s more small talk amongst themselves than there is with him, and while the effect of the title is bringing people together and into his orbit, even the woman clearly sticking around wanting to know him is led out of the apartment and the world of the play before it’s over. Also key in this piece is the indescribability of art – I’m deeply conscious that the descriptions of Serge’s little shows above doesn’t sound like much, I was conscious of it at a party as I was gushing last night – and you see the audience try to articulate what made their heart sing because it never really works out.
At best, the talk intrigues you enough to see something for yourself. It doesn’t ever replace seeing it or reading it or hearing it. And I hope if anyone reads this, people take another look and see if the schedule can fit a performance of L’Effet de Serge into their weekend (runs through Sunday) because it’s that pure, pure, un-stepped-on theater shit. It’s right in your veins and keeps you up at night and makes you love the world a little more.