Some theatrical experiences make intelligent use of the “point of no return.” Let’s use the following definition that I just made up: A theatrical point of no return is when the experience or event has used up all available resources and reached the outer limits of the dramatic frame in which it has presented itself.
This limit is often reached in television, due to the forced duration of entire seasons. There are various ways to deal with it, one of which has even given birth to a colloquialism, “Philippe Quesne’s Night of the Moles, which had a short run (or dig) at NYU’s Skirball Center.” There is, then, an opportunity here to coin a similar phrase for the failure to overcome a point of no return, but for theatrical endeavors instead of television. I’m leaning towards “burying the mole.” Although to understand it, you’d need to have seen French theater director and visual artist
The first thirty or so minutes are quite captivating. An empty stage with an ominous throbbing LED light is overtaken by aof moles, seven in total (by my count). After punching a hole in the wall, they enter, one by one, by pushing boulders through a cardboard tunnel into a three-walled room constructed from drywall, with the open side to the audience.
The moles are not actual moles, of course. They are French performers in huge mole costumes. The mole costumes are pretty amazing. Each mole has a subtle distinction. Some are very large, over seven feet tall. One always has their mouth open, giving them an on-looker persona. The performances are equally skilled and impressive and, despite the scale and awkwardness of these lumbering costumes, we are immediately drawn in by the mannerisms and small performative details. One medium-sized mole always holds its hands tucked in front of it, which gives it a nervous tic to rely upon. The moles themselves are great. It’s not the moles that become a problem.
They fill their little room with bouncy boulders, hoisting one boulder using a winch for no apparent reason. A dead mole is excavated. They attempt resuscitation and fail. They hoist the dead mole using another winch, where it will hang above the action for the remainder of the show. They destroy their room using a pickaxe, but not before spray painting rudimentary wall drawings, a cross between punk graffiti and early cave images. One of them appears to throw out their back, but no, is actually pregnant and gives birth in front of us. The voices of the moles are amplified from deep within their costumes, giving us a series of grunts, breathing, and sounds that exist outside of language, but at the culmination of this birthing, one of the larger moles coos, “Its-a-boy,” in one of the only gestures towards verbal communication for the evening.
They also play instruments. A drum kit, a theremin, a bass, and lead guitar are set up alongside the habitat. Intermittently, one or more moles escape the main space and provide accompaniment to the action. Their costumes have hand holes so that the performers can actually chord a guitar.
All of this occurs in the first half of the show, which brings us back to the idea that there might be a point of no return, and to the phrase “burying the mole”. Once the moles have destroyed their frame (enjoyable to watch), they are left in a larger cave-like environment that is less amenable to their behaviors. Quesne tries valiantly to keep them occupied–they eat giant worms! They have sex! They ride motor scooters ritualistically in circles!–but even all this activity only buys another fifteen minutes or so, at which point the giant boulder and dead hanging mole are cast aside and a plastic sheet is raised on the winch instead, feeling more like a white flag of theatrical surrender than a solution.
The sheet is used the way you’d expect it to be used, as a surface for rear-projection, as the moles engage in some old-school shadow puppetry. There’s a suggestion of war and many psychotropic lighting effects. The music gets louder and more frenzied. But—there’s nothing left to happen. It’s disappointing and underwhelming and eventually devolves into the moles literally running around in circles holding each others tails for what feels like ten straight minutes.
The moles are fun to watch as long as they act like moles. Their evolution into more human-like behavior (projection! puppetry! punk rock!) requires a more sophisticated mode of operation, which is beyond the capacity of this performance and environment. The allegory that added technology leaves us running around in circles holding our (non-existent) tails in our hands is not lost on me, but is also not dramatically interesting enough to warrant the extent of stage time it’s given.
There’s nothing left to be done except to re-bury them. Using walls of sound, smoke, and even more running in circles, Night of the Moles does just that.