Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 38
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
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“Aurélia’s Oratorio” runs through October 17 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre with performances Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8 p.m, Saturdays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Call (609) 258-2787 or visit for information.

Circus? Magic Show? Mime? Dance? Acrobatics? Vaudeville? “Aurélia’s Oratorio” at McCarter Is 70 Minutes of Enchantment

Donald Gilpin

The images of Aurélia’s surreal, topsy-turvy dream world will stick in your memory long after the final curtain calls. In this series of dozens of wordless vignettes, inspired by medieval drawings that depict worlds upside down and inside out, there’s the actress-dancer-performance artist, Aurélia Thierrée, borne aloft like a kite, high above the stage, as an actual kite on stage holds the string. There’s the woman with a gap where her torso should be, as a toy train runs through the tunnel created by the void. There’s what looks like a blizzard behind a descending screen of lace and behind that screen a creature devours the protagonist’s leg until she escapes,takes out her knitting needles and knits it back on again. There’s the chest of drawers from which one by one emerge the lithe limbs of a young woman, in amazingcontortions, eating, lighting a candle, pouring a glass of wine and apparently getting dressed. There’s the Grand Guignol puppet show, where the audience is made up of a gathering of expressive puppets, and the disembodied face of Ms. Thierrée fills the stage. There are the colorful accoutrements — the black and red robes and numerous other costumes that sometimes hide, sometimes transform the performers (Ms. Thierrée and her brilliantly versatile counterpart and dance partner Jaime Martinez), and even take on lives of their own as they seem to become additional characters interacting with the principals. And there are the amazing, lush red curtains, which repeatedly surprise the audience, in creating ladders, houses, towers, swings, hammocks, escape hatches, hiding places, and an array of different worlds for these extraordinary performers to inhabit.

Aurélia’s Oratorio, touring since 2003 and playing at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through October 17, is the creation of Victoria Thierrée Chaplin, daughter of Charlie Chaplin, granddaughter of Eugene O’Neill and also mother of Ms. Thierrée. “She conceived everything in the show, including me,” Ms. Thierrée explains. Ms. Chaplin and her husband, actor and director Jean Baptiste Thierrée, in France in the 1970s, founded Cirque Imaginaire and Cirque Invisible, a new style of circus without animals and with an emphasis on acrobatics, dance, and aerial tricks. Their dazzling creative artistry, visual playfulness and affinity for dream-like images were an essential inspiration for Cirque de Soleil and also for Aurélia’s Oratorio. As children, Aurélia and her brother James toured the globe performing with their parents in Cirque Imaginaire and Cirque Invisible.

This unconventional piece to lead off McCarter’s 2010-11 drama season is full of surprising moments, astonishing sights, delightfully funny incongruities, and mind- boggling illusions. Tapping a vein of world theater history that is non-traditional, non-representational, and non-verbal, this is Alice through the looking glass, but without words. It’s the realm of “Where the Wild Things Are” or Salvador Dali or perhaps just the world of an impish child determined to defy all expectations.

Upside down characters walk across the stage. The laundry is hung from an upstairs window and carefully soaked with a watering can. Ice cream cones are made of hot coals and burn the tongue. The alarm clock rings and it’s time to sleep. The bearers of a regal palanquin carry their passenger upside down. A woman’s strapless bodice consumes her. She turns into the sands of an hourglass. Her lover tries in vain to recover her by sweeping up the sand and pouring it back into her dress.

Trained in trapeze, dance, and acting, Ms. Thierrée describes the essential “flexibility of mind and self” that this artistry requires, and audiences too, especially those who go to the theater looking forward to plot, dialogue, or logical character development, will also need flexibility and open-mindedness in order to remain receptive to the full range of delights offered here. Some observers may detect a certain narrative thread — Mr. Martinez’ character does seem to be in pursuit of Ms. Thierrée’s character throughout the evening, and there are memorable moments of harmony and disharmony between them — but Ms. Chaplin and Ms. Thierrée leave it to the spectators to make their own transitions, connections and conclusions amidst the abundance of startling, seemingly disconnected images.

Ms. Thierrée handles this bizarre material with style, charm, and impressive physical and dramatic skill. With a wide-eyed, waif-like demeanor, she moves and performs with beguiling strength and grace. Whether floating amidst the curtains high above the stage, executing a lively dance number, or wrangling on the floor with the other strange inhabitants of this world, she is full of wonder, surprise, and mystery.

Mr. Martinez, a founding member of Parsons Dance in 1987 and a prominent member of the dance world in New York and beyond, serves as an excellent counterpart to Ms. Thierrée and a formidable dancer, mime and performance artist in a number of fascinating solo pieces. His numbers with various articles of clothing — robes, shirts, pants, red shoes, and others — demonstrate dazzling dance skills and the ability to endow those articles of clothing with the kind of life that turns his solo pieces into one-man pas de deux.

The music, as eclectic as the assortment of surprising events it accompanies, is a crucial component of the magical event. It ranges from Edith Piaf-style French accordion to jazzy dance numbers to heavy electronic percussion, off-beat pop songs, and chamber music. This is a bizarre “oratorio” indeed. This inventive, appealing 70-minute creation, not, of course, a composition for literal voices, is definitely a work that “speaks”— mostly visually—from many different perspectives and will transport its audiences into wonderfully strange, funny, almost religious or at least mystical, never-beforeimagined realms of thought and imagination.

Who could doubt that the offspring of the June 1943 marriage of Charlie Chaplin and Oona O’Neill, daughter of legendary playwright Eugene O’Neill, might produce, through the creation of their daughter Victoria Thierrée Chaplin and granddaughter Aurélia Thierrée, a masterpiece of such dark whimsy, captivating cleverness and rich, provocative resonance? Whether it’s more circus, magic show, dance, mime, performance art or vaudeville—Aurélia’s Oratorio is relentlessly intriguing entertainment.

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