On the opening night of 15 Head's production of Chéri, director Julia Fischer received two unexpected gifts from her cast. The first was a bouquet of flowers, delivered with a heartfelt speech. This was to be Fischer's last play with the company, cast member Leif Jurgensen explained to the assembled post-show audience, raising a plastic cup filled with wine.
Fischer, who co-founded 15 Head five years ago and established the company's unique, collective improvisation approach to generating plays, had decided she could not continue with the company. The reasons? The usual: She could not afford it any longer, and she wanted to spend more time with her family.
And so the opening night of Chéri ended with a bouquet and several toasts, which left Fischer flustered. She stared at the bouquet, astonished. It was an unexpectedly elaborate collection of long-stemmed, droopy tropical flowers, too large to carry with any comfort, rising waist-high when set on the ground and looking like a prop from some offbeat Argentinean tango melodrama.
The second gift, delivered privately, was just as surprising: A pair of handcuffs trimmed in pink faux fur. A joke, shared by the cast, with an appropriately elaborate story behind it. Early on in the development process for Chéri, Fischer and several other 15 Head company members were invited to lead a six-week residency at Sonoma State University, spending February and March of this past year teaching their unique theatrical method to the school's advanced acting students. They brought Chéri with them, already knowing that they wanted to create a stage adaptation of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette's 1920 novel of Parisian gigolos and demimondaines. Sonoma was to be something of a workshop for the play, with the students performing their own version at the end of the six-week residency.
Among the dozens of exercises developed by Fischer is one that involves collage, in which the performers go home and construct their own assemblage of items that remind them of the play they are developing. One student brought in an old photograph, a recording of a love song, and a pair of pink faux-fur trimmed handcuffs. The photograph, she explained, was old, because the story was old. Chéri is also a love story, telling of the troubled relationship between an aging courtesan and a fey, beautiful young man--thus the love song. And the handcuffs? Well, the student explained, the book deals with "fancy sex."
Cast member Leif Jurgensen found himself unaccountably tickled by this, and he peppered the student with questions. "What do you mean by 'fancy sex'?" he asked. "Do you mean bondage? S&M?"
"No," the student answered blithely. "Just fancy sex."
"Some of those students found a way of doing theater that they are going to want to do for the rest of their life," Chéri cast member Jon Micheels Leiseth said, summarizing the residency. "But some found a style of theater that they are never going to want to do again."
Colette published some 15 volumes of writing, most of it transparently autobiographical, much of it obscure outside of France. But there is something inherently theatrical in her writing, thanks in no small part to her own longtime involvement in the French music hall, which she documented in her novels. She wrote of flamboyant characters in arch, sexually charged relationships, and her cast drew from the Parisian twilight world of decadent millionaires, dissolute opium fiends, and grandes cocottes. Her two Chéri novels (Chéri and La Fin de Chéri) span the period of World War I, detailing a lost fin de siècle French world where highly mannered, near-courtly social behavior rubbed uneasily against a newer, brusquer sort of manners. Chéri, Colette's self-absorbed, vapid, beautiful protagonist, stands squarely between these worlds.
The 15 Head production places Chéri's story on a series of staggered, slanted, elevated stages, designed to look like a triptych by Mark Rothko: a series of three angular strips of color, red, white and black. The elevated stage furthest from the audience comes equipped with footlights, and the earliest scenes in the story play out on this stage, including the scene that opens Colette's book. Chéri (here played by Jim Bovino, making his character an essay in shallow vanity) has wrapped himself in the pearls of his lover, an older woman named Léa (Jaidee Forman, playing her role authoritatively, snapping out strict reprimands to her young paramour). Chéri and Léa must constantly avail themselves of Chéri's vapid courtesan mother and her gaggle of daft friends.
Chéri's mother is played by Jon Micheels Leiseth in drag, his face a mask of white pancake makeup, eyes wide and mad, always underlit from the footlights, looking like a lithe, transvestite Tor Johnson emerging from the grave in Plan 9 from Outer Space. Most of the female friends are likewise played by male cast members in drag, outfitted with overstuffed bodices and bustles. They trade empty comments with each other while pirouetting on one foot and gesturing in tandem with their teacups.
Chéri and Léa's relationship is staged with a sumptuousness rarely seen on Twin Cities stages. They bicker good-naturedly over money while moving through a series of coital postures, a pattern of erotic motion that they repeat every few minutes, regardless of their surroundings or even the subject of discussion. But Chéri's mother has arranged a marriage between her son and a wealthy neighbor's daughter, played by Kat Carrol as almost entirely empty of personality. The girl rides around on a bicycle in a white bodice and pantaloons, wearing an oversized straw hat, grinning broadly and waving eagerly. Chéri, greedy for the girl's money, accepts this arranged marriage, setting in motion the remainder of the play.
As befits a production inspired by a triptych, the play consists of three sections, each very different in tone. Once Chéri exits the brightly underlit world of his mother and older lover, he abandons his new bride in favor of a garish, velvet-clad nightlife of sexual debauchery and opium dens, mostly represented by a group of shadowy, gyrating figures in frock coats calling out for him.
As befits a director who asks her performers to make collages, Fischer's take on Chéri very much has the feeling of an assemblage of disparate elements. These shadowy, dancing figures, for example, borrow some of their postures from Cubist images but borrow their pelvic motions from Elvis Presley in Kid Creole. The production is ultramodern in a way that even Colette couldn't have imagined. A brief scene of reconciliation between Chéri and Léa, for example, is directly inspired by the Dogma 95 movement, and may be the first time that this strict Danish esthetic has been translated to the stage. The former lovers, meeting on an unbalanced platform beneath a glaring spotlight, strap on body microphones like those worn by singers in Broadway musicals. They then scuffle briefly, every sharply expelled breath echoing as a cacophony through the sound system, until they pull each other to the ground and make brutal love to each other, whispering tender words into one another's ears. Again these words are amplified, and their desperation is palpable. It's a thrilling piece of stagework, muscular and terrifying, a grim counterpoint to the stylized love scenes that played out earlier in the production.
"It is ironic that this is my last show," Fischer declared in response to the impromptu toasts in her honor, standing before her enormous bouquet, after the play's opening. "This is the first time it really felt like we knew what we were doing."
This is a sentiment that was repeated throughout the evening. Chéri, because of the six-week workshop and because the performers have grown familiar with Fischer's process of creating a play, feels somehow more finished than past 15 Head Productions. "Often, when we get to the point where we open a play, I feel like this is where we should be starting with the process," dramaturge Chad Sylvain admitted to me (his words were later repeated almost verbatim by Fischer). "Some of our productions have been just barely comprehensible, if that."
Chéri, in contrast, is perfectly comprehensible, even at its most abstract, such as its final scene, which consists of nothing but the play's characters riding bicycles in slow arcs around the main character, muttering non sequiturs at him. Fischer leaves 15 Head just at the moment when her distinct approach to theater seems to have fully coalesced.
And her approach is distinct, make no mistake. There are precious few models for collectively created theater like that found at 15 Head, so much of the process employed by the company was invented by Fischer. "She just made it up," Sylvain explains. "I've been there for it, and I've seen her just make it up."
Alas, this is a story that threatens to become common in Twin Cities theater: Just as our talent pool matures enough to produce really interesting art, it has matured too much to be able to afford to devote the time and resources theater requires without reasonable compensation.
So this past Thursday was Fischer's last opening night, for a while at least, and she leaves the company in the hands of its members. The next season will consist of two shows, the first directed by Leiseth, the second by Sylvain. "We're really beginning to feel like a company," Fischer declared. After the speeches and impromptu toasts had been made, the Red Eye stage was turned into a makeshift dance floor and dance music boomed out from the speaker system. Jaidee Forman and Kat Carrol, both trained as dancers, invented spontaneous New Wave shuffles and, gesturing for Fischer to join them as Romeo Void played, singer Debora Iyall sneered out the words to "Never Say Never": "I might like you better if we slept together."
"Especially if it's fancy sex!" Carrol called out.