A French Festival Where the Actor Is King

MONTPELLIER, France — The director is widely considered king in French theater, and is often a bigger name than anyone onstage. At the Printemps des Comédiens, however, it’s the actors who are in the headline: The name of this festival, first held here in 1987, translates as “Actors’ Spring.” This year’s opening weekend brought uneven productions uniquely crafted for — and occasionally by — their performers.

The festival’s artistic director, Jean Varela, is a veteran actor, and his programming this year felt in keeping with the event’s collegial atmosphere. Most performances take place at the Domaine d’O, a large park surrounding an 18th-century castle on the outskirts of Montpellier, about 100 miles west of Marseille in southern France. In addition to three permanent theaters, temporary performance spaces are set up in the gardens, and artists and audiences can mingle between shows around large picnic tables under the pine trees.

No production seemed more at home in this setting than Jean Bellorini’s “Un Instant” (“An Instant”), performed in the park’s Roman-style amphitheater. It was inspired by Marcel Proust, but Mr. Bellorini, the director, wisely makes no attempt to follow the sprawling narrative of “In Search of Lost Time,” which is notoriously difficult to adapt. Instead, he offers a quietly affecting meditation on memory and family.

“Un Instant” features just two actors, Hélène Patarot and Camille de La Guillonnière, and they played an integral part in shaping the production. They wrote the script with Mr. Bellorini, and Ms. Patarot’s life story is woven into it. Born in French Indochina, in what is now Vietnam, she migrated to France with her family as a child; when her mother became unwell, she was placed with a foster family in the countryside, and for a time lost all connection to her Vietnamese heritage.

Ms. Patarot, 65, is a grandmotherly figure alongside the younger Mr. de La Guillonnière. Early on, he tenderly takes her hand to help her down a stair, and nudges her to remember details of her own story. “Un Instant” then segues into excerpts from Proust, with Mr. de La Guillonnière as the narrator of “In Search of Lost Time.”

The text meanders in true Proustian fashion. Like the proverbial madeleine, a scent or a gesture recurs and opens up vertiginous worlds that seemed forgotten. Unbuttoning a boot triggers, for Ms. Patarot as in the novel, the image of a lost grandmother. Still, memory remains selective, as Mr. Bellorini’s stage design suggests: In it, a ladder leads to an attic reminiscent of a childhood refuge described in “In Search of Lost Time,” but there is no house around it, only mountains of chairs.

While Mr. de La Guillonnière brings Proust’s words to life with clarity and sensitivity, Ms. Patarot somehow embodies the current of bittersweet longing underneath them. Emotions glide across her face slowly, like clouds. It’s a shame Mr. Bellorini has opted to layer predictable music over a handful of scenes, including Arvo Pärt’s vastly overused “Spiegel im Spiegel”; his cast needs no help.

Frank Castorf’s directorial hand has never been light. His has been an imposing presence over the years, but his fearless company of actors played a major role in his success at the helm of Berlin’s Volksbühne theater. Since his departure in 2017, however, he has found himself working with new players. His “Don Juan” was created for Munich’s Residenztheater, whose ensemble can’t quite paper over some of the production’s weaknesses.

This four-hour production is a freewheeling version of Molière’s 1665 play. As is his custom, Mr. Castorf has “augmented” the play with additional material, by the French writer Georges Bataille and the German playwright Heiner Müller among others. Don Juan’s amorality opens the door to transgression and nudity onstage, and the female actors are, at times, aggressively sexualized. Still, the hero in this version, played by two performers, Franz Pätzold and Aurel Manthei, is more nihilistic than a standard womanizer.

Mr. Pätzold and Mr. Manthei carry much of the production, whether they’re blowing rings of smoke in aristocratic dress or racing around the stage naked. Nora Buzalka, as Charlotte, a peasant very willing to be seduced, also stands out alongside her dimwitted fiancé, played by Marcel Heuperman. The rotating sets, which feature a small wooden stage and a pen for three goats, are beautifully detailed, but after the interval Mr. Castorf appears to have been running on empty and brings little resolution to the hodgepodge of ideas in the text.

A series of solo performances brought a sense of focus back to the festival. “Le Marteau et la Faucille” was initially created as an interlude in “Joueurs, Mao II, Les Noms,” Julien Gosselin’s 10-hour stage adaptation of three novels by Don DeLillo, which had its premiere last year. Now presented as a stand-alone work, “Le Marteau” is an adaptation of a short story by Mr. DeLillo, “Hammer and Sickle,” about a hedge fund manager jailed for financial crimes. Bathed in red light, the indefatigable Joseph Drouet delivered it breathlessly into a camera while his performance was simultaneously projected on a screen behind him.

The young Julie Delille, another solo performer and one of just a handful of female directors in the lineup, delivered a work of remarkable visual precision with her adaptation of “Je suis la bête” (“I Am the Beast”), a novel by Anne Sibran. Ms. Delille herself plays the heroine, a 2-year-old girl abandoned by her parents. The show starts in pitch darkness, as if to mimic the closet in which she is trapped.

The girl is rescued by a cat and grows up among animals in the forest. Much of the story could easily look silly (how to stage a dangerous encounter with badgers?), but Ms. Delille has created spare tableaux that suggest the girl’s evolving physicality, from a prowling beast to a rescued orphan. Her instincts promise much for the future.

Other emerging actors weren’t as lucky. The playwright and director Pascal Rambert wrote a leaden play, “Mont Vérité,” for a dozen graduating students from the School of the Théâtre National de Strasbourg. It does prepare them for challenges they may face as professionals, from pointless nudity to mind-numbingly affected monologues; if there is a life lesson to be gained from watching a steady stream of audience members walk out, they’ve learned it now.

At least “Mont Vérité” was staged at the Domaine d’O’s Bassin, a gorgeous alfresco setting that allows for extensive stargazing when the action onstage isn’t up to scratch. Mr. Rambert is scheduled to open this year’s Avignon Festival with another new play. Let’s hope it makes better use of theatergoers’ summer nights.

Printemps des Comédiens.
Through June 30 at the Domaine d’O and various venues, Montpellier, France.

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