“L’habit ne fait pas le moine” is the French reminder to not judge a book by its cover. The Gallic expression is a more precise summary of Philippe Quesne’s La Mélancholie des Dragons, however. The play, which is making a brief sold-out run at The Kitchen as part of Under the Radar, opens on a wordless tableau of four aging metalheads, whose scraggly black wigs are most of what we see of them, sunken into an old VW hatchback, drinking beer to the opening chords of AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” Quesne’s foursome is a perfect demonstration that “the robe doesn’t make the monk” because, despite their leather and big hair, they have something strangely monkish about them; later, when they are joined by three more identical rockers, we’ll discover that they have musical tastes that run to medieval minstrels, a predilection for decorum and silence and, above all, a utopian project of creating a mobile theme park about “dreams and freedoms.” Which is why they are in this car, in this clearing, waiting.
Why they are this way, however, is not a question for Quesne, nor for us; another approach to this play, whose wacky metatheatrics made waves when it premiered at the Festival d’Avignon way back in 2008, is to take a hint from Quesne’s company, Vivarium Studio, and acknowledge that the action is taking place in a controlled, half real, half artificial environment, like a terrarium, or, of course, the theater. Quesne has said about his work with Vivarium that he imagines “communities of ordinary people who wonder where life is taking them” and has a weakness for “the group act of believing in something, even when it’s mundane.” These are all useful signposts for following where he takes us in this show.
Quesne has a diploma in fine arts and he previously designed theater sets and interactive museum interiors. His eye is highly trained to visual detail and is attracted to the intersections of human life with its surroundings, “the constantly shifting visual relations among bodies and objects in movement.” In a way, the show begins with a finger touch on a screen that wakes the machine. The immobile rockers who sit in a snow-glazed clearing (did they get stuck in a storm, has the car broken down, are they waiting for something?), will eventually be activated by the appearance of a woman, Isabelle. While she can’t fix their engine immediately, her presence, which comes as if on cue, to the mournful notes of The Scorpion’s “Still Loving You” on the car’s radio, flicks the switch for the rest of the show’s action.
We are asked to do more than watch it unfold; like Isabelle, we have to also see the essence of everything the rockers show her. “Would you like to look, Isabelle?” is the play’s refrain as they push rebellious locks of hair out of their faces and unveil for her, in their unhurried way, the contents of their car and its trailer, which contain the seven attractions of their amusement park. These are all terribly unremarkable – “sad” in the popular discourse; there is a water fountain, bubbles, fog… but each one elicits a respectful “WOWWWW!” from Isabelle. We could fall into a comfortable assumption that these headbangers (which include Isabelle, who wears a Metallica shirt) are simpletons rescued from a vortex of heavy metal distortion. This conclusion is supported by their halting speech in English, which sometimes produced long pauses as the actors sought their lines (Quesne often has the company perform in the language of the countries they visit on tour, a risk that will be explained later). And we could observe Quesne’s playful touches, such as when an actor lifts up the snowy tundra of the set’s floor to plug in a projector, and conclude that the play is just a play making fun of itself. But we’ll have to revise our ideas before the end.
This artless crew is, in fact, rather well read and cultured. Their amusement park includes a library, and it offers books on Goya and Caspar David Friedrich as well as Artaud’s Theater and Its Double. They reference the allegory of Dürer’s Melencholia I and they give Isabelle a t-shirt silkscreened with Bruegel’s Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap. Is the joke on us? When they inflate four massive black monoliths for the finale attraction, their mysterious, softly swaying installation inserts itself in the lineage of these other celebrated works on melancholy, expressed in the rockers rudimentary language.
Quesne’s influences are all of these artists and Beckett too, though Artaud is the most obvious here; the actors can badly deliver – or miss entirely – their lines in English because the spoken word takes a back seat to Quesne’s visual language, especially the images the characters create with their “attractions,” and the emotions that are stirred by those. We aren’t asked to listen – despite the play’s eclectic soundtrack – as much as we are meant to see with our eyes and our hearts.
As disarmingly lazy and unpretentious as La Mélancholie des Dragons looks, Quesne and his actors, who come from a range of ages and professional backgrounds, are working from a complex conceptual sourcebook with a strong directorial vision, in the literal sense (you might be reminded of Richard Maxwell’s New York City Players). This practice also comes with a strong moral force: the preoccupation with melancholy, that medieval humor associated with longing and nostalgia, is not an excuse for a game of intellectual oneupmanship here. There is an undertone of sadness, just barely perceptible through the bubbles and fog, for what their project will never undo: our unrelenting, narcissistic pursuit of individual happiness.
Quesne’s community of misfits is touching in its wistfulness for a more perfect existence and completely refreshing in its sincere, even joyous pursuit of it. Even if their hymn is “Still Loving You,” performed on acoustic guitar and a plastic recorder, monastic is not too strong a comparison.