Nobody is supposed to talk during the performance. So when one of the dancers in the show begins whispering, you know things are getting out of hand.
Emily Zuckerman is the guilty party in Raphaëlle Boitel’s “When Angels Fall,” a darkly humorous theatrical concoction from France that received its American premiere in the Peak Performances series at the Kasser Theater Montclair State University on Feb. 9, and runs through Feb. 17. Zuckerman’s fellow characters are not amused. How dare she violate their code of silence?
Zuckerman is unrepentant. Drawn like a moth to a light that illuminates her small corner of the stage, she chatters away, oblivious to the disapproving crowd that gathers around her. When frowns and angry “shushing” prove ineffectual, the other performers seize her bodily.
Yet even hoisted into the air, she continues to twist around and reach for the light, a friendly beacon promising her the warmth and companionship that is otherwise lacking here. Her disobedience seems infectious, and Loïc Leviel begins to sympathize with her even as he tries to carry her away.
It seems more than theatrical decorum is at stake in this production, which makes unlikely companions of high-flying circus stunts and the choreographer’s dark vision of a future gone awry
In the dreary landscape of “When Angels Fall,” which Boitel has imagined in collaboration with lighting and set designer Tristan Baudoin, the seven performers stand in for a downtrodden humanity. Smothered in overcoats, they breathe foggy and most likely poisoned air. Lamps with black “pupils” in the center, resembling eyes, spy on them from all sides.
The performers move mechanically, wobbling and vibrating, betraying the discomfort of flesh-and-blood creatures who are obliged to act like wind-up toys.
In the face of such oppression, Boitel’s sympathies, and ours, lie with the mischief-makers and the accident-prone. Despite, or perhaps because of our own conditioning (no whispering!), we rejoice, with a child-like gleefulness, whenever one of her characters breaks the rules. For instance, there’s the savory moment when Leviel, who has been dangling from a hook, inadvertently frees himself. He takes a few proud steps, sauntering and relishing his independence, until Nicolas Lourdelle intervenes and brings him to heel.
“When Angels Fall” continues the long French tradition of a revolt against tyranny— more than two centuries of nose-thumbing from the French Revolution to the Yellow Vests of today. The Existentialist wing of this movement has produced such notables as Samuel Beckett and Maguy Marin. To this tradition Boitel now brings the death-defying showmanship of the circus. It’s as if the legless parents of Beckett’s “Endgame” were to jump out of their dustbins and take to the flying trapeze; or as if the shuffling clowns of Marin’s “May B” could fly.
The aerialism of “When Angels Fall” makes an intriguing metaphor for the double-edged gift of modern technology. Swinging high above the audience or twirling rapidly in the air, the performers acquire superhero powers, yet the same mechanical devices that enable them to fly also hold them prisoner. Alba Faivre has a knockout solo, shimmying up and sometimes falling partway down a vertical cable, catching herself at the last moment, twisting and spinning in ecstasy. Yet her virtuosity does not help her escape.
No, the one who finally makes a break for the end zone is none other than Zuckerman, the irrepressible whisperer, who, after zooming through the air on a detached catwalk, finally climbs this ladder into the rafters and disappears. Left behind, the others stand looking upward and listening as she croons the sentimental ballad “Daisy Bell” from her new perch in the sky.
Do they wish, horridly, that they could drag her back to earth?
Or will any of them have the courage to follow?
Remaining performances of “When Angels Fall” at the Kasser Theater at Montclair State University are at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 14-15, 8 p.m. Feb. 16 and 3 p.m. Feb. 17. Visit peakperfs.org.