FESTIVAL ARCHIVE  —  2023

2023 Festival Archive: Les Anges Au Plafond

Les Anges Au Plafond: R.A.G.E.

January 19-21, 2023

Studebaker Theater

Presented by Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival

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Scholarship and Resources

R.A.G.E. by Les Anges au Plafond: An Enigmatic Author’s Life Told Through Complex Puppetry

An Essay by Claudia Orenstein

R.A.G.E., from the French company Les Anges au Plafond, uses a wide range of inventive puppetry and other captivating techniques to convey its elaborate plot. Nonetheless, it is helpful to be familiar with the history and infamous deceptions of the French author Romain Gary, on whose life the production is based, to fully appreciate how the show uses its various means to present this enigmatic figure. An understanding of the central position literature has had historically within French culture, such that Gary would be a topic of national consideration, as well as a view into French anti-Semitism, especially during World War II, are also helpful. I guess that’s a lot of background to ask of your average puppetry festival attendee, with material that is certainly more common knowledge for the company’s French audiences. I was fortunate to learn some of this while hearing R.A.G.E. director Camille Trouvé discuss the show at the festival symposium on “Boundless Bodies” and finding a helpful BBC article about Gary after seeing the show: https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20180619-romain-gary-the-greatest-literary-bad-boy-of-all. Also useful to my insights into the production is surely my own background as the daughter of a French Jew, who survived the war as a child by living with a Christian family and pretending to be someone other than who he was to escape being deported to a concentration camp.

Gary is infamously the only person to have twice been awarded France’s prestigious Goncourt literary prize. The prize stipulates that an author may receive it only once, but Gary’s second award was given to Émile Ajar, a pseudonym Gary adopted when his own work began receiving lightly veiled anti-Semitic reviews from French critics suggesting that it was somehow not truly “French.” (“Romain Gary” is itself a pseudonym, as he was born “Roman Kacew.”) Gary went so far as to enlist his nephew to portray the fictional Ajar in interviews, only revealing the ruse in a letter left behind after his death by suicide. His autobiography was also posthumously published and full of untruths, like the story that while he fought for France, his mother passed away, leaving 250 letters to be sent to him at intervals so he wouldn’t know she had died and would continue to distinguish himself in battle. His real life might be considered nearly as startling as some of his personal fictions given that, as a Jewish immigrant to France from Lithuania and son of a single mother, he became a decorated World War II pilot, a film director, a diplomat, and a twice-over nationally celebrated novelist. R.A.G.E. (initials drawn from mixing his two literary names, Romain Ajar Gary Emile) attempts to portray the full scope of this life and the complications and contradictions in getting to the heart of this notorious celebrity. Puppets, masks, and multimedia alongside human actors help create a peripatetic stage world of distorted characters and shifting identities. 

Audiences at the Edlis Neeson Theater at the Museum of Contemporary Art had the option of watching the show either from the house or from tiers of seats set up on stage right, which is where I sat hoping for a close-up view of the puppets. Using human-scale figures on wheels, the performers sweep their characters (sometimes a single puppeteer manipulating two at once, like Gary as a child and his mother) swiftly from one part of the stage to another, reaching all spectators and setting a quick pace for the show with its many short scenes conveying a complex tale. Some staging takes place at the back of the house, requiring audience members seated there to twist around to see it. This includes a periodically returning snide clique of neighbors—puppets with goat and other animal heads—complaining about the strange food smells and other unseemly (in other words “un-French,” foreign, or Jewish) habits they detect emanating from Gary and his mother’s apartment. The back of house is also used for Gary’s mother to send the fabled posthumous wartime letters, which the puppet mother lights on fire and sets traveling down the side of the theater wall along a string.

A collection of nine separate projection screens hangs over the stage. When brought down simultaneously (as they are on and off throughout the show), they can create a single large screen across the proscenium for projections. At several points the screen captures the danger of wartime pilot Gary’s flights, with projected vintage footage of bombing raids. The central screen opens amidst these moving images to reveal the human actor who plays the adult Gary (Brice Berthoud) flying his plane while, simultaneously in the midst of battle, writing to his mother or working on one of his novels. From the vantage point of the stage audience, in scenes like these one gets a clear Brechtian view of the apparatus that come together to create the stage illusions—Gary sits atop a large ladder placed behind the screen. The show’s multiple staging choices and devices express the many angles from which one might consider the story and “facts” of Gary’s life. Showing the creation of illusion also reflects back on the ways Gary constructed both his novels and the fictions of his own history. At one point, screen projections show the letters of his birth name, along with a few additions rearranging in various configurations, while the voice of Gary’s mother critiques each new potential pseudonym as it forms. Is it distinguished or French enough? The show presents her as a woman impressing on her son the high expectations she holds for him, achievements the real Gary, to a great extent, actually attained. It also reveals Gary remaking himself to fit into and be respected by French society as a lifelong project.

At numerous points the show presents several Gary figures simultaneously: one actor playing Gary, wearing an iconic red suit, and another wearing the same suit and a mask with a face identical to that of the Gary performer. When Gary finds out about the Goncourt prize going to Ajar, his ruse ostensibly putting him in legal jeopardy, two identical Garys confront each other: One of the projection screens lifts up, creating an opening in the screen wall, revealing a brooding Gary on each side of it. They first move in mirrorlike unison but end up facing off against one another, one pulling a gun on his doppelganger. 

There is so much packed into this fast-paced and intricate show that my viewing left me wishing to see it a second time (perhaps this time from the house) to fully take in and contemplate all this material and how its diverse, inventive, and entertaining choices, masterfully executed by multitalented performers, were not just telling the story but reflecting on questions of identity, fictional creation, and the psychic scars of prejudice. With this show, Les Anges au Plafond (whose successful 2000 production Le Cri Quotidien, or The Daily Cry, performed at several US venues) is taking their puppetry into ambitious territory. While the production seemed to leave some spectators I spoke with puzzled, the depth of thinking that went into it perhaps requires audiences to meet it with an equal amount of patience and dedication. The show demonstrates how the broad realm of aesthetic options that are part of a contemporary understanding of puppetry can tackle complicated themes worth taking the time to ponder. 

Play Video

View Camille’s presentation above or watch full symposium on Howlround.

Camille Trouvé at the Ellen Van Volkenburg Symposium

On Saturday, January 21, 2023, Camille Trouvé was a speaker at The Ellen Van Volkenburg Puppetry Symposium session entitled “Boundless Bodies.”

The event was co-hosted by The Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, moderated by Dr. Paulette Richards, and held at the Studebaker Theater as well as streamed through Howlround.

Transcript of Camille's Presentation

Okay, can you hear me? Yes, I'll try to do my best in English to present the company Les Anges Au Plafond So we founded the company in 2000. Yes, in, with Brice Berthoud, which is a great puppeteer. We met in a festival, in a puppetry festival. And we decided to found a company together. And the strange thing is that we decided to exchange the role all over the creation travel, sometime is performing on stage and I'm directing him. And the rivers thing is apprising when I'm performing and he is directing me. And at first it was like a game.

We choose this way of working and it became a real link in between all the shows of the company. And we’ve been building 12 shows on this theory. And then after, at first it was like a little solo of puppetry and as years go by, shows became bigger and we had a whole team around us and we take a whole stage. We started on the table and then after we expand the universe of Brice Berthoud on the whole stage. We were really inspired with Master of Puppety. I mean, I think puppetry is something like a shock. When you first met a master of Puppety or an image of Puppety that really shock your imaginary. I’d like to talk about Ilkashin Bain for example or Philip Jeanti or Fabricio Montague or Galvin Glover from the, I mean many master of Puppetry I really appreciate and that inspired my universe and the universe of Les Anges Au Plafond is rooted in transdisciplinary practice so that we are mixing the language of the body, the language of the material, the language of the music and the text. And we are trying to connect all these practices into on stage, into the show. And everything is created at the same time. This is quite a way of working that is, we are not starting with a text, a right, a text that is written. We are starting with a vision of manipulation, vision of the space, sonography is like our main puppet. Our big, it’s like a big puppet on stage. We are manipulating the sonography with a lot of strings and tricks and trap and things that pop up and appears, expand on stage. So sonography is designed by Brice Berthoud usually and is like creating the space as a huge puppet. And then I usually design the puppet and I’m trying to really go into the link in between the puppeteer and his puppet to try to make a language, what is, in geometry, what is, what does it mean to manipulate a puppet on stage on this story and what will be the role of the manipulator and what is a link in between the two. For example, in “R.A.G.E.”, we could say that the main character is a human, is an actor, is performing the role of a writer and all the puppets are part of his imaginary world, is getting out of the book. So there is a link in between the actor, the puppeteer and the, all the puppets on stage, the main, in the company, we rooted our imaginary world into the Greek myth. As we start, we started, and it’s very nice to hear about “Œdipe Sur la Route” from Henry Bauchau because it was one of our book reference book as well because we’ve been building two shows about Antigone and Œdipe, with this kind of game with Brice and I.

So I directed him in Œdipe and he directed me in Antigone. And it really gave a ground for the company like a place where our imaginary is working. And then after we choose two contemporary myth, which which are Camille Trouvé, which is a great artist, French artist sculpture from the 19th century, who faced a really hard censorship in her work because at that time in France, sculpture was not allowed for women. So she had to really fight hard to find a way and to impose her vision, artistical vision and independence, apart from men and from masters of culture. And the second character we took the life of is Romain Gary and that is the show we are presented actually in the festival. “R.A.G.E.” is the show, the story about Romain Gary, which is a great, great writer in France. But his story is incredible because he’s magnificent swindler. He just, he had, he was born in Russia in the early 10th, in the early 20th century. And at this moment in Europe, he, I mean, how will I, okay, is a, he went through whole Europe with his mother because of the programs starting in Europe. And then the mother has the idea of taking his child, her child to France. And it was like the first part of the show is the big travel through Europe and the mother protecting her child from the violence and the absurdity of fascism. She is building for him a world in which everything is a story and she’s protecting his imagination from the violence of the world. So she creates, so in a part a vision in which reality and fiction are really close and mixed and there is no borders. There are no borders in between. And at first it was like a treasure for the young Romain Gary because she was believing in him, raising him, saying that he will become a huge man, an important guy, but at a certain part of his life it became like a wound and he had difficulties to make the difference in between fiction and reality and he became, the promise that it gave his mother at the dawn of his life became a kind of difficulty to get through. And he reinvented himself around 40 years old into another character, another writer, another, and in, he became this kind of swindler woning twice the Ginkgo Prize and making a big intrigue around his writing. Did I manage to explain all this in English? Thank you. Thank you. That’s the show we are presenting now in Chicago “R.A.G.E.”, with a human sized puppet made out of papers and belt about the imagination of this author, Romain Gary.

Festival Performances

About the Performance

January 19-21, 2023
MCA Chicago
205 E. Pearson St.

US Premiere

In a spectacular blending of magic, puppetry, gesture and manipulation, R.A.G.E. presents the outlandish story of a literary imposter who, to escape censorship, invents a new identity and plots one of the most beautiful deceptions of the 20th century. This politically epic and scathing story teeters on the porous border between reality and fiction. Join miles of threads, dozens of puppets, a trumpeter, a singer and a man as they weave a plot of resistance with maternal love in a desperate attempt to re-enchant the world.​

Performance with English subtitles

With special support from: FACE, Cultural Services French Embassy United States

Image Gallery

Past Performances and Further Reading