Reviews Off-Broadway Published 17 November 2013


Abrons Arts Center ⋄ 14th - 23rd November 2013

The past is so bright…

Molly Grogan

Bush Moukarzel is a man on the run. Running from his past, from memories, from time’s ineluctable passing. As Marcel Proust, he’s also running on a treadmill, and getting quite a workout, in Souvenir, a free-wheeling, one-man show derived from In Search of Lost Time, that comes to Abrons Arts Center from the Dublin-based Dead Centre company.

“Souvenir” is understood here as the French word for memory, rather than a plastic Eiffel Tower or some such trinket, but the latter would ably suit the show’s irreverent aesthetic and purposes: in this the 100th anniversary of Swann’s Way, the first volume of Proust’s monumental work, Moukarzel doesn’t celebrate a literary landmark so much as he makes it a canvas for exploring his own anxiety about the past, the present and, well, that romantic breakup of a while back.

The famous opener to Swann’s Way – “For a long time, I used to go to bed early” – is the starting line for Moukarzel’s 60-minute mad dash across Proust’s 3,000 page oeuvre. The framework of the show is likewise provided by its central relationship between Proust’s Narrator and the elusive  Albertine. But Moukarzel interprets all this through the detritus of his own life. The stage is covered with carefully labeled, various sized cardboard boxes that proclaim the contents of Bush/Marcel’s material, emotional and perhaps imaginary existences: “NOTES FOR SOUVENIR”, “MUM”, WHAT JON DID”, “DRINKS”, “APOCALYPSES”, “OTHER ROYALTY”, etc. and of course “MADELINES”. The label on another, “TAX RETURNS”, is crossed out to read “ROBERT”, a sly reference to Proust’s successful younger brother and a wink at the cares of the modern age.

Suffice it to say that Moukarzel might dress like a 19th century gentleman and head for the Paris aérodrome to wonder at those new-fangled flying machines, his references and his story are firmly rooted in his own place and time. That treadmill is one of many anachronisms, from music (Springsteen, in a mawkish rendition of I’m on Fire, played on a pump organ), to pop literature, with a suggestive excerpt from Fifty Shades of Grey.  A Giant’s cap and a Whole Foods paper sack stand in for Albertine’s fur hat and  handbag, and the casino scene in Proust where the Narrator learns of Albertine’s lesbianism is transposed to a nightclub with Beyoncé on the turntable. He later uses his iPhone to take photos of his sleeping lover before elaborating a mathematical formula by which he can conclude with scientific certainty that his girlfriend equals the B-word. 

With gags and jokes likes these, many of which require audience participation, watching Souvenir is loads of fun, but Moukarzel is doing much more than play with Proust. If any criticism can be made, it would have to be the speed at which some deeper reflections hurtle past. The text references Harold Pinter’s 1972 screenplay of In Search of Lost Time, quotes Richard III in Bosworth Field, Walter Benjamin on Proust, T.S. Eliot… The play begins, in fact, with a list of Moukarzel’s sources, and there’s a certain irony to the box labelled “MY THESIS”, which it seems Souvenir could be.

The primary theme of In Search of Lost Time is involuntary memory, and Moukarzel at first appears to follow Proust’s lead: his narrator is overwhelmed by a past that won’t go away because it is contained in all the stuff and boxes that surround him. The show ends with yet another clever bit of foolery designed to “help us re-find the times we have lost”. But as the images on the Viewmasters we have been provided click past, the possibility is revealed that there may be a different “past”: one that never really happened at all. Moukarzel doesn’t reference the literary critic Roger Shattuck’s “principle of intermittence” or the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s notion of “signs” in Proust, but both open windows onto what Moukarzel is feeling his way toward: on the one hand, the subjectiveness of our apprehension of reality, whether in the past or the present, and on the other, the artist’s role in the revelation of a deeper truth.

Indeed, Proust’s primary concern in his opus was to show that art triumphs over memory and thus over life. Souvenir, which comments freely on Moukarzel’s own struggles to reconcile the three, is an unpretentious but ultimately exultant exploration of that one idea that Proust never forgot, and that Moukarzel would like very much for us to remember.

Molly Grogan

Molly Grogan covered French and international theater for 20 years in Paris. She has written on theater for The Village Voice and American Theater and managed an Off-Broadway theater company. She is a translator of fiction and non-fiction with a Ph.D. in Francophone postcolonial literature and a Masters in social linguistics.

Souvenir Show Info

Directed by Ben Kidd

Written by Bush Moukarzel, after Marcel Proust

Cast includes Bush Moukarzel

Show Details & Tickets

Running Time 60 minutes (no intermission)


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