Reviews NYCOff-Broadway Published 17 September 2015

Suite no. 2

French Institute Alliance Française ⋄ 10th -11th September 2015

Speak up.

Molly Grogan

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but French artist Joris Lacoste literally shouts down that old saw in “Suite no. 2,” a counterintuitive display of the power of spoken language, that opened the French Institute Alliance Française Crossing the Line festival last week. There are no images here, or any dressing-up of the question Lacoste puts to us on a bare stage: even in our selfie world, isn’t language the most eloquent repository of human experience there is?

To prove his point, a quintet of actors with standing mikes and a drum machine (for cadence), shoot through a surprising mélange of 37 verbal documents, beginning with the opening announcement for the World Heavyweight Boxing championships in Atlantic City in 1997, and ending with a voicemail in French in 2015. In between are samples of human speech on an infinite spectrum of contexts from the mundane to the fraught to the bizarre: a countdown for an anesthesia procedure in Denmark, a stand-off between a protestor and police in Ecuador, a student’s improv in a therapy session for teenagers in Belgium. This eclectic source material comes in 17 languages, and, very impressively, is delivered in the original by the multilingual cast (the production boasts 5 language coaches). These snippets are placed end to end with no commentary other than an anonymous title projected behind the actors (for example, “Scene of Panic on New Year’s Eve, Shanghai, 2015”) and an emphasis on their performative aspects, as the actors pace themselves in their delivery, moving an arm in a conductor’s gesture, or keeping time by snapping their fingers, often singing them, too (with help from the composer Pierre-Yves Macé) .

Though it might come off as a gag, the project is perfectly serious.  “Suite no. 2” is the offshoot of Lacoste’s passion for sound poetry, which grew into an online collection of hundreds of voice recordings, taken from social media, television and film mostly, and classified by 18 oral qualities (emphasis, melody, repetition, tone, even “residues” and “sympathies”…). Known since 2007 as the Encyclopédie de la Parole, the collection is available online.

“Suite no. 2” is not always meant to be taken at face value, however. It’s hard not to laugh at a French rugby coach’s pep talk, a fitness class on Croatian TV, a wildly unbridled declaration of love left on a Chechen cell phone, or Amber’s meltdown in Season 8 of “Big Brother.” Other verbal documents incite more ironic laughter: a droning press conference by Portugal’s Minister of Finance (does he take himself seriously?), or a furiously vulgar customer complaint to a Colombian internet provider (we’ve all wanted to say that!), or Gwyneth Paltrow’s teary, ultra-rehearsed thanks for winning the Best Actress Oscar (if you can recognize her; the segment is titled only “Acceptance Speech at the 71st Academy Awards”).

Mostly, however, it is this kind of understated presentation, combined with the cast’s virtuoso performances as they replicate the rhythms, intonations and articulations of the original speeches (some of which may be accessed on the Encyclopédie de la Parole’s website) that build resonances and make this show a riveting exploration of the language we find – or don’t find – to describe situations and emotions. From the dangerously dull legalese of the verdict delivered at the Khodorkovsky/Lebedev trial in 2010, to the menacingly calm exchange between Nova Scotian air traffic control and the pilot of doomed Swissair flight 111, just before it crashed on a routine flight from JFK to Geneva in 1998, language can be an instrument of violence and a mask on horror. It can also give voice to a burning desire to exist, as in an improvised speech by a homeless man in the Paris Métro, or a  Syrian’s enraged attack on Bachar Al-Assad. Or it can reveal us to be just silly, in “Address to an Ostrich in a Zoo,” or, paradoxically, at a loss for words, as in the minute of silence improbably observed for Michael Jackson at government offices in Karachi, Pakistan.

Whatever can be heard or not, felt or not in “Suite no. 2,” Lacoste’s selections write their own meditation on human thought and behavior and its expression through spoken language. In a historical moment, also, when the founding ideals of the European Union are being tested by the continent’s current immigration crisis, this multilingual, uber-cultural show is an example of what European art – and theater – can do best: remind us of our human unity in our astonishing cultural diversity.

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.

Suite no. 2 Show Info

Directed by Joris Lacoste

Cast includes Vladimir Kudryavtsev, Emmanuelle Lafon, Nuno Lucas, Barbara Matijevic, Olivier Normand

Original Music Pierre-Yves Macé

Show Details & Tickets


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