The body of work Joël Pommerat has created over almost 30 years as the artistic director of the Compagnie Louis Brouillard has earned a hallowed, if not harrowing, place for itself in French theater. His plays sit at the precipice between a recognizably banal reality of offices, factories and homes and a shadow world of menace and malaise ruled by unseen and implacable forces that tip the ordinary into the extreme and the bizarre. Sometimes human psychology is tested, sometimes it seems the paranormal is in play, and these zones of unease are heightened by chiaroscuro effects of set and lighting and a brooding minimalism.
All of this lurks in the wings of his Little Red Riding Hood, which opened the French Institute Alliance Française’s children’s festival, TILT, now in its third edition. It’s not counter-intuitive to venture that this singular director’s vision translates fluently into children’s theater: Pommerat bores into the unspeakable desires and deepest fears that fairy tale writers Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm mined. Unlike other children’s fare like Pinocchio and Cinderella, which his Compagnie Louis Brouillard has also adapted, Little Red Riding Hood trades primarily in suspense and concludes in gruesome horror, elements that Pommerat never shies from, even in a show for small children. They came out en masse to the opening performance, and judging from their rapt attention throughout its 45 minute duration, Pommerat and his actors – as in so many of his “grown-up” shows – had the audience entirely under their spell.
This was all the more noteworthy for the economy of means with which the company tells the story, especially for an audience raised in the digital age: an empty black stage and three actors in the roles of the Little Girl, Mother, Grandmother, Wolf and a Narrator. The latter is not a given; the story could be told diegetically, notwithstanding the “once upon a time” conceit of most fairy tales, but Pommerat’s Narrator holds the key to the story’s inexorable unraveling and suspense. This is both a matter of the story’s telling and the actor’s presence; Rodolphe Martin exudes a rangy, lupine physicality with a thick mustache and beard, unkempt tawny hair and a set of piercing, darting eyes that dare you to look away. That he is dressed like an undertaker in a loosely fitting grey suit, black shirt and tie and seems to lean into the audience as he speaks intently at us from downstage, only adds to our instinctive distrust.
And whereas Perrault and the Grimms wrote a morality tale to scare girls away from any aspirations to independence, Pommerat rather challenges girls not to be the dutiful servant of others. The first third of the performance develops a complex relationship between the Little Girl and her Mother (and between the latter and the Grandmother): an element that most versions of the story ignore on their way to the fatal meeting with the wolf. In that respect, among others, Pommerat’s version is decidedly contemporary, offering a stressed out, tired, egocentric Mother (Isabelle Rivoal) click-clacking away on high heels while her daughter (Valérie Vinci, whose diminutive size and saucer-wide eyes convey a convincing six- or seven-year old, and who also plays the aged grandmother) aches to be recognized as her own person. The two play a monster game where Rivoal’s Mother shakes her thick mane of red hair over her eyes and stalks the Little Girl before eating her up: foreshadowing of course, but also a trenchant invoking of the Devouring Mother motif of fairy tales in a contemporary setting. We come to understand that we cannot escape our genes (the girl becomes the mother and the mother hers) but we can – though it takes some grit – at least try to escape an unhealthy environment or a life we don’t want for ourselves, and maybe, in another context, attain those. For older kids and the adults in the audience, Pommerat torques the story’s moral even while telling the tale faithfully to its disastrous end.
But what everyone is waiting for in any Little Red Riding Hood is the encounter between the girl and the wolf, represented here by a life-size body puppet that speaks with a digitally altered voice (since the Narrator is, of course, the Wolf). Pommerat and his formidable actors deliver the moment with almost unbearable suspense and a grotesque flair for irony (the gnashings and gnawings of the animal feasting on his human dinner are, excuse the pun, deliciously amplified). The writing, too, is also wryly funny, as when the Wolf, nearly beside himself with the idea of eating the Grandmother while trying to pass as the Little Girl, is unable to open the door to her house and offers the most ludicrous explanations for why he cannot. The language is a simple, colloquial French that is all the more powerful for being direct, almost intuitive, as a child speaks (and, importantly, Red Riding Hood is “the Little Girl,” to speak to every little girl in the audience).
The English translation was received by non-French audiences at Florence Gould Hall via surtitles; consequently, the show was recommended for children seven years and older, yet I couldn’t help notice that most of the kids sitting around me were younger than that (a French toddler to my right watched with open-mouthed stupefaction). Fairy tales are fare primarily for pre- and early-literate children, delivered at an age when books are read to them, not by them, so the choice to use surtitling rather than a simultaneous translation via infrared headphones, as for the hearing impaired, seems like a missed opportunity to appeal to a wider audience. Moreover, Pommerat’s text is central to his adaptation; the psychological drama is contained in the language, particularly in the dialogues between the Wolf and his victims.
Pommerat’s Little Red Riding Hood premiered in the US in FIAF’s Crossing the Line almost 10 years ago, reaching that festival’s adult public. The show retains its powerful hold on us; it’s a shame that FIAF didn’t try harder to appeal to non-French-speaking kids in the production’s very brief visit to TILT. It’s a universal tale, of course, and Pommerat’s minimalism demonstrates that our greatest demons lies in the recesses of our own imaginations, but his version is like no other and it deserved the fullest hearing possible.