James Thiérrée is the director, set designer, and choreographer behind the dance-drama Tabac Rouge. The grandson of Charlie Chaplin, his production is a bit like a silent movie with sound—that is, while none of the characters speak, and while almost all story is communicated visually, he still relies on a series of sound effects, largely mechanical in nature. In fact, this could be Modern Times by way of Fritz Lang, the Tramp’s whimsical assembly line replaced with an industrial inferno.
Though largely plotless, the show centers on an aged king, a Lear without the daughters, who seems overcome with an ennui punctuated by moments of despotism. Attended by an underling (Magnus Jakobsson) and a contortionist (Valerie Doucet), he smokes—his rattling lungs blasting through the loudspeakers—lounges in his chair, and admires his own reflection. Behind him we see large scaffolding and, I think, the oppression of his people.
But Tabac Rouge is more about individual moments than narrativity, those moments tied together less by plot and more by the aura of a hellish circus. Ms. Doucet is particularly notable: in her more casual moments, she is seen gliding across the stage, effortlessly doing the spider-walk from The Exorcist. In an extended solo, she thrashes around her rag doll body, topping off the performance by snapping her head back, throwing on a jacket, and sidling over to Mr. Thiérrée, apparently decapitated. The evening I attended, the audience gasped, laughed, and cheered in rapid-fire succession.
Granted, Tabac Rouge is a somewhat heartless affair; there is little to hold on to, and for that reason I found myself occasionally restless. Still, ringleader Mr. Thiérrée emphasizes a uniquely theatrical quality that is oddly underappreciated by today’s artists: he has created a show that is undeniably magical.