Feb 25th, 2017, 10:00 AM

The Show that Refused to Close

By Michelle Lynch
Image Credit: Wikimedia/Tournachon
Sometimes a theater plans a run for one month, and it lasts over half a century.

Any theater lover walking the streets knows that Paris is full of incredibly intriguing venues just waiting to be stumbled upon. From high theatre to casual improv, Paris has it all. While it’s easiest to stay in the loop for shows at larger venues such as La Comédie Française or the Théâtre du Châtelet, it’s the hidden gems that often leave a lasting impression.

Down a cobbled street right off of the Saint-Michel metro is one such gem: the Théâtre de la Huchette. With its rugged exterior of white concrete and crooked billboard letters, the theater does not exude an aura of excellence; but excellence is just what they’ve been serving, since February 16, 1957. It was on this date that Marcel Pinar began to run Ionesco’s shows La Cantatrice Chauve and La Leçon together, intending for this to be a one-month installment. When the house of 85 seats never emptied, the show became a permanent installment.

I may have been over half a century late, but I finally got around to seeing the shows this weekend. A few years ago, I had been exposed to Ionesco’s Rhinocéros as a text, and found myself unable to appreciate the humor that accompanied the philosophy in the piece—until I saw it performed. Knowing this about Ionesco’s work, I was eager to see similar mechanisms in action. I was not disappointed. Both plays held that same humor that’s only grasped in the twinkle of an actor’s eye as they discuss the fate of the world. The entire house, which was full of people of all ages, spent the two hours falling out of their seats laughing, which is quite the feat for a classic French play.

La Cantatrice Chauve was a piece very similar to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf or God of Carnage in the sense that it’s two couples stuck in a room together, facing their own relationships and eventually devolving into non sequiturs. But this trip into nonsense is riddled with hilarity partnered with meaning, from the young couple not recognizing each other, to the older couple confusing each other during a discussion of an entire community with identical names. There is comedy in every scene, expertly carried by the actors. But the depth is also there, for those who care to dissect.

La Leçon is of a very similar flavor, on a smaller scale. This piece focuses on an elderly tutor and his young pupil as they embark on their first day of lessons. There is a similar progression of angst which turns towards deterioration as the instructor becomes increasingly agitated with his student’s ignorance. The girl’s health declines as the instructor becomes more and more manic, and the entire play crashes to a rather bloody conclusion. Again, the actors managed to walk the line between humor and deep meaning, especially in the case of the man portraying the tutor. The piece was riveting, and the perfect companion and conclusion to La Cantatrice Chauve.

If there is one thing that has always been true in the world of theater, it is that small productions do not last unless they have earned their place, and continue to do so. With over fifty years of runtime and over two million spectators moving through a few dozen seats, the show’s excellence speaks for itself. If you’ve got two hours and an appreciation for dark comedy and quality acting, this show is for you.