PARIS — The birds hovering around the ruins of Port-Royal des Champs, a former abbey southwest of Paris, may have been taken aback by the flock of visitors who arrived on a recent Saturday. Around 11 a.m., bleary-eyed Parisians poured out of buses for a seven-hour hike through the site and woodland that surrounds it — all in the name of theater.
And “Joy of Man’s Desiring,” Clara Hédouin’s back-to-nature adaptation of a 1935 Jean Giono novel, took full advantage of its unusual setting. A hunt was staged in the forest. Farming, a central theme, was debated in front of actual barns. Bird names were listed, at length, to the human audience in a meadow, while the local fauna circled above.
The trek wasn’t what you’d expect from a city-centric arts festival like Paris l’Été (literally “Paris in the summer”), which played host to “Joy of Man’s Desiring” and organized travel from the capital. Yet this multidisciplinary festival, which started in 1990 as a way to keep the performing arts scene alive in Paris during the quiet summer months, has always had a quirky side.
Its first director, Patrice Martinet, delighted in bringing unconventional works to venues ranging from gardens to suburban residential buildings. In 2016, a new team was appointed under Laurence de Magalhaes and Stéphane Ricordel, who were already at the helm of the Monfort playhouse in Paris. They promptly changed the name of the festival, from Paris Quartier d’Été to the more anodyne Paris l’Été.
The early years of de Magalhaes and Ricordel’s tenure saw a dip in the quality and originality of the festival’s programming, but the 2022 edition suggests they have now found their footing. While Paris l’Été remains much smaller than the major French summer festivals, like Avignon, this year intriguing productions abounded. The week before “Joy of Man’s Desiring,” locals and tourists could take their pick from a Ukrainian punk concert, an immersive performance starring professional strippers and a bravura theater show built entirely out of cardboard props, among other offerings.
On July 14, Bastille Day, a packed audience watched as the Ukrainian band Dakh Daughters, which has often performed at the Monfort theater since 2013, returned to that stage under very different political circumstances. This radical feminist group, which bridges the gap between punk and folk influences with stunning ease and a dark theatricality, has long sung about the 2014 Maidan revolution in Ukraine, as well as Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the Donbas region. Yet currently, the band’s entire country is under attack.
“Close the sky over Ukraine,” the screens behind the group read early in the show, and images of the conflict, Russian nationalist propaganda and protests around the world were subsequently shown. Between songs, the stories of ordinary Ukrainians were read in voice-over. Midway through the concert, the women of Dakh Daughters, who also performed at the Avignon Festival this week, asked the audience to observe a minute of silence.
While the band performed a number of songs that were composed before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and its members dressed, as usual, in tutus and combat boots, with faces painted white, the band’s typically no-holds-barred performance style was stripped back. An edge of cold despair shaded even the loudest, most percussive moments. “I would like to return to my home,” the band’s drummer said at one point, in softly accented French. “Do you want peace in your home?” she then asked the audience. When the answer was a resounding “yes,” she whispered: “Good idea.”
Dakh Daughters aside, this year Paris l’Été focused primarily on new and recent French productions. “Strip: At the Risk of Liking It,” directed and performed by Julie Benegmos and Marion Coutarel at a high school, gave audiences a window into the world of professional striptease — and kept them on the edge of their seats, too, with the promise of one-on-one time with a stripper in a private booth for a lucky few.
The production relied a little too heavily on this literal teasing. Early on, Benegmos and Coutarel explained that, at regular intervals, a flower would be given to an onlooker, who would then be invited to follow them outside the small auditorium. Two men and a woman were selected when I attended, and the audience was left to wonder what happens next. (The answer comes at the very end, and while I won’t give it away, it involves a virtual role reversal.)
There is much of interest in the rest of “Strip: At the Risk of Liking It,” including filmed interviews with other professional strippers, a pole dance number and questions about the degree of freedom women are afforded when selling eroticized performances. But the show’s structure never quite flows, with abrupt transitions that fail to dig deeper into this material.
“Fat People Skate Well. A Cardboard Cabaret,” on the other hand, takes an impossibly complex idea and makes it work through sheer virtuosity. The show is built around the contrast between Olivier Martin-Salvan, dressed in a dapper suit, who sits throughout the show and mumbles in an expressive yet incomprehensible mix of English and gibberish, and Pierre Guillois, who flits around him in boxer shorts, carrying dozens of cardboard cutouts as a means of telling the story.
They come in all shapes and sizes, with words written on them to explain what they represent: “fjord,” “tree,” “hail,” and even “fly swat.” With the help of two assistants on the sides, Guillois, a maverick of a performer, spins lo-fi yet meticulous choreography out of these props. (Despite the title, the closest we get to skating is some shoe boxes on Martin-Salvan’s feet.)
“Fat People Skate Well. A Cardboard Cabaret” has won a number of awards this season, including a Molière, and it was obvious why in this outdoor revival at the Centre Culturel Irlandais. Puns and visual jokes are interspersed throughout as Martin-Salvan’s character goes on an absurd quest around European countries to reconnect with a siren he met (in the form of Guillois, wearing a cardboard tail). There is nothing currently like it on the French stage, and the instant standing ovation rewarded the duo’s ingeniousness.
The ingeniousness of “Joy of Man’s Desiring,” Hédouin’s open-air saga around Port-Royal-des-Champs, was of a different nature, and it had outstayed its welcome by the seventh hour. Giono, whose novel the show is based on, was an early environmentalist, and his characters, all inhabitants of a small village who set about reclaiming their joy with the help of a mysterious stranger, did fit beautifully into the surroundings. But the cast’s take on Giono’s lyrical style was often plodding, and gave the sense that the production had yet to find its inner rhythm.
Still, there was joy to be found in traipsing through forests and the remains of the abbey, armed with the camping stools provided by Paris l’Été. At the end of the day, it was the sign of a festival hitting its stride, and thinking outside the box again.
Various venues in Paris, through July 31.