All around Raphaëlle Boitel, people are in a hurry. They rush past the spot where the French choreographer sits alone, looking dazed and confused, at the center of her haunted movement-theater work “The Forgotten/L’Oublié(e).” Then a woman dashes off, breaking into a sprint before a swell of emotion lifts her off her feet and carries her flying above the stage of the Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State University, where “The Forgotten” made its impactful U.S. debut on Thursday, opening this season’s Peak Performances series.
The ability to fly comes naturally to the women in this poignant ghost story, outfitted with an aerialist’s harnesses and drapes. They also race desperately, trying to catch up with the memory of a dead loved one, a man whose figure remains forever in the distance. With the insight of the bereaved, Boitel understands now that she is also hurrying to meet her own end. In “The Forgotten,” the image of a woman running suggests the swiftness of time passing.
Though it has comic touches, “The Forgotten” is a melancholy piece that describes the experience of losing someone dear and coming to grips with one’s mortality. The work portrays a healing journey through grief and a love so powerful it can never die. The title seems ironic, because the departed is anything but “forgotten.” He reappears now and then, suddenly visible in a corner; and he rejoins the family at dinner.
Silvère Boitel (the choreographer’s brother) plays the part of the deceased, his back turned to us so we never see his face. He meets his end accidentally in the first moments of the show. Doctors try to revive him in a desperate, slapstick pantomime, but must resign themselves to the fact that this particular human comedy has ended.
For Raphaëlle Boitel, however, this death is only the beginning. Despite snatches of dialogue in which she reassures us that “I’m doing fine” and “It’s getting better,” the loss has a shattering effect on her. Boitel seems to splinter into three distinct selves. She has a smaller, younger self (performed by Aloïse Sauvage); a middle-aged self (Alice Boitel, the choreographer’s sister); and an aged self (Lilou Hérin, the choreographer’s mother). These alter egos share the same space, in the mysterious way that during a person’s lifetime the same mind manages to occupy a succession of bodies. The multiplication of the show’s protagonist also suggests the way in which we see ourselves reflected in our kin. Evidently the Boitels, a family with a history as circus performers, are a tightly knit clan.
After the death, Boitel finds herself lying on a hospital gurney. It’s unclear how much time has passed and what may have happened to her, but her own brush with illness triggers a hallucinatory episode. Half-naked, her body floats off the bed, rising limply toward the ceiling. Later she will twirl in the air, wrapped in a bedsheet like a person in the grip of a nightmare.
From this point on, the mind is free to wander; and “The Forgotten” unfolds in a series of surreal vignettes. Boitel’s younger self tries to escape her older self, and is catapulted into the sky. Hérin, the old lady, regards herself in a mirror, tilting her head quizzically to one side and holding out the long, gray tresses of her hair. Wearing an antique gown, the choreographer walks haltingly across the stage, hampered by the weight of the dead man sitting on her skirts and smoking.
In the depths of this dark night, a spotlight shines on Sauvage, offering sensual glimpses of her bare shoulders and legs. Then the light darts from side to side to frame the other women, as if showing us the “same” body at different ages. “The Forgotten” embraces the paradox of an old soul inhabiting a girl’s body, and a young heart beating in a withered breast.
In other episodes, Tristan Baudoin portrays a doctor; an ominous figure in a leather horse mask; and an unsatisfactory, would-be substitute for the departed. The patchwork score includes snatches of song (“Dream a Little Dream of Me”) and the sounds of a ticking clock, an infant gurgling and a horse neighing.
The final scene resembles a Victorian graveyard, with the women dressed in black hoop skirts that sweep a stage littered with autumn leaves. In the background, yellowish clouds pucker like a wound. Boitel, a modern woman, seems trapped in an age-old ritual of mourning.
Yet in the end, she is able to remove her funereal hat and veil. Perhaps this sleeper is about to wake.
The last two performances of “The Forgotten/L’Oublié(e)” take place at 8 p.m. Oct. 1 and 3 p.m. Oct 2; visit peakperfs.org.
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