Avignon Festival Forges Ahead, Despite Virus Restrictions

AVIGNON, France — It sounds like a virologist’s nightmare: 1,070 theater productions; 116 venues, most of them within Avignon’s cramped medieval center; and everywhere, festivalgoers sitting shoulder to shoulder in indoor spaces.

Yet the Fringe offering at this summer’s Avignon Festival — which runs parallel to the main event, and is known as “le Off” — has forged ahead, even as the more contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus became the dominant strain in France.

Is it problematic to enjoy excellent performances under the circumstances? With the rituals of Avignon, including unmasked performers handing out publicity fliers in the street, came a sense of normalcy. Still, a sneaky sense of guilt permeated conversations with theatergoers — not least when new restrictions were announced, shortly after the Avignon Festival began.

Last week, the French government decreed that a “health pass” — a QR code proving full vaccination or a negative coronavirus test result — would be required from July 21 for all venues with over 50 seats. Restaurants, bars and trains will follow from Aug. 1. (The health pass requirement previously applied only to events with more than 1,000 audience members.)

Frustration was palpable in Avignon in the days before the rule came into force. While roughly half of Fringe venues are small enough to skirt it, some companies opted to leave early, and bigger shows reported ticket returns and a drop in bookings. Last weekend, as widespread demonstrations against the policy swept France, protesters filled Avignon’s biggest avenue, shouting “Liberté!” (“Freedom!”)

While the Avignon Festival’s official lineup (“le In,” in local parlance) went from bleak to bleaker in its themes, Fringe fare at least offered some respite from pandemic worries, since comedy has always been a prominent part of this less highbrow portion of the festival.

Two original one-man shows, by Mehdi-Emmanuel Djaadi and Marc Arnaud, combine jokes and impressions with explorations of deep-seated inner conflicts. Djaadi’s “Coming Out,” especially, is an exercise in stereotype busting. The coming out in question is religious: The show recounts the 34-year-old comedian’s conversion from Islam to Catholicism.

Support for his choice was scarce, as Djaadi tells it at the aptly named Théâtre des Corps Saints (Theater of the Holy Bodies). His family, of Algerian descent, felt he was turning his back on them; a priest explained that he didn’t want any trouble; in artistic circles, many were ill at ease with what they saw as the Catholic Church’s homophobia and conservatism.

Yet instead of expressing the resentment he might have felt, Djaadi looks back on his journey, from teenage rebellion and drug dealing to a Catholic wedding, with amused affection. He points to contradictions on both sides, and France’s churchgoers come in for pointed satire, too.

In “The Metamorphosis of Storks,” Arnaud focuses on a much shorter stretch of time. He and his wife went through the process of in vitro fertilization, and we meet Arnaud as he is about to donate a sperm sample — a process that brings up far more feelings than he expected.

As he stalls impatient hospital staff, his monologue covers his sexual education, his attempts at therapy and anxiety about parenthood. It’s a brisk, honest reckoning with the travails of masculinity, which packed the Théâtre du Train Bleu to the rafters (before the health pass requirement was implemented).

Not that Avignon audiences were turned off by darker shows. At Artéphile, one of the few Fringe venues to also function as a year-round cultural space, the director Blandine Pélissier offered a stark and convincing production, “Iphigenia in Splott.”

The Welsh playwright Gary Owen is relatively unknown in France, but his 2015 reworking of the Iphigenia myth — translated by Pélissier and Kelly Rivière — should prompt curiosity about his work. Here, the sacrificial victim is Effie, from the Cardiff district of Splott, a blaze of raging energy who becomes unexpectedly pregnant. This 90-minute monologue convincingly attributes the lack of support she encounters to social and medical service cuts, and the actress Morgane Peters takes the role from hard-edge anger to pain with poignant ease.

Productions with larger casts were a bigger challenge this year, given that a positive coronavirus test among the company was enough to call a show off, and the director and actress Julie Timmerman downsized her show “A Democrat” as a result. Timmerman retooled this excellent production about Edward Bernays, the American nephew of Freud known as “the father of public relations,” for just two actors (Mathieu Desfemmes and herself). The result is adroitly written and witty, a worthy look at the dangers of Bernays’ techniques when they’re used for propaganda purposes.

While the Avignon Festival’s official, curated lineup involves far fewer productions than the Fringe, it was hit with a handful of coronavirus-related cancellations. The artistic teams of two choreographers, Dada Masilo and Dimitris Papaioannou, were unable to travel to Avignon, while Eva Doumbia’s “Autophagies” saw its run interrupted when members of the cast and crew had to go into isolation after coming into contact with an infected person.

Two European productions that went ahead make a lasting impression. Emma Dante, of Italy, choreographs as much as she directs, and in “Misericordia,” theater becomes dance and vice versa. In it, three women raise a child, Arturo, who is described as mentally disabled and whose mother was a victim of domestic violence. Together, they form a bickering, complex family. The dancer Simone Zambelli not only captures Arturo’s twitching, disjointed body, he spins his physical vulnerability and moments of joy into poetry, knotting himself into expressive shapes.

Avignon also hosted the stage version of “Pieces of a Woman.” Before it became a film starring Vanessa Kirby last year, the playwright Kata Weber and the director Kornel Mundruczo imagined it for the TR Warszawa playhouse in Warsaw, and the Polish cast delivered a gut punch in Avignon at the Lycée Théodore Aubanel.

The play starts with the same lengthy labor scene as the film, but it covers less narrative ground after the central couple’s baby is stillborn. Whereas the screen version details the trial of a midwife who attended to the birth, this is only hinted at as a possibility onstage, and Maja, who lost her child, refuses to go through with it. Instead, the characters’ grief plays out over a long family dinner at the home of Maja’s mother.

The result requires more patience on viewers’ part, but rewards it with a fully formed portrait of a family adrift. In that sense, the stage version of “Pieces of a Woman” completes Weber and Mundruczo’s puzzle: Let’s hope Avignon won’t be its only international stop.

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