Defense a Elephante

PARIS — A French reader recently accused me of having ‘hard teeth,’ the local equivalent of “He hates everything.” I wish she could have seen me last night at the Attrape-Coeurs (Tr.: ‘Heart-Catchers’) bookstore, which may well become my new Q.G. (Quartier General = Headquarters), where I arrived already in the throes of a major toothache. (This would be the tooth where my dentist — the one who shares a bureau with his doctor brother, that their mother was American honored by a waiting room poster of Belmondo dragging Seberg on the Champs in Godard’s “Breathless” — keeps telling me “The nerve is dead. You can’t be having any pain.”) Normally, the last critic you want in your house reviewing your play is the one with a horrible toothache, because he really will hate everything short of Kate Bush singing “Sat in Your Lap” in his lap. (Speaking of the eccentric Irish: Walking home last night from the play/reading at the Attrape-Coeurs off the Square Constantin Pecqeur in Montmartre, and seeking  a modular toilet on the tree-lined strip that splits Rochechouart / Clichy, I spotted one across from the Moulin Rouge in which the guy who just entered had assumed the peeing position as the automatic door closed, so I decided to wait. He’d no sooner finished then a drunken Irishman, one of the thousands of foreign soccer fans in town to get drunk in honor of their home team during the Euro-Cup, cut in front of me before the door closed, opened his fly, looked over his shoulder and insisted, “We can share, pal!” What I didn’t have time to tell him as the door slid shut into a locked position was that in 10 seconds, and only after he’d been hermetically sealed inside, the toilet would switch to the ‘lavage’ cycle, meaning water would explode from all four sides. Sure enough, about 10 seconds later, I heard the man scream, “WHAT THE FUCK IS HAPPENING TO ME?” As drunken Irishmen aren’t always particular about who they blame for the catastrophes their drinking leads them into, I decided after a few seconds to skedaddle to the next toilet on the strip, under the  glance of the passengers of one of the prowl cars cruising around looking for over-drunken soccer fans.)

(I’m afraid I have to continue the digression here, because it makes for a perfect segué into a  story I’ve been waiting six years to purge. The last time I shuffled from toilet to toilet on this same strip was in 2010. Temporarily stifling my own inner drunken Irishman, I’d been on the wagon. I think I wanted to see if Paris and life in general still got to me without the (albeit moderately imbibed) booze. So at the after-party at the Abbesses theater that night, instead of having three or four glasses of red, I downed five glasses of pineapple juice, and quickly, so that by the time I’d descended the few blocks to the boulevard, the juice needed to get out. Unfortunately, this was right after the city had computerized its toilets, which of course meant that they’d all stopped working at the same time due to a computer failure. I made it as far as Barbes before I shat myself. This made it impossible to get on the subway without feeling shame (because of course I know everyone on the subway), so at this point I dropped my goal, if not yet my pants, to just wanting to find a toilet in which I could clean myself up. Unfortunately, they were all as malfunctioned as the ones on the boulevard, including my usual reliables along the Canal St. Martin. (If you want to know where to find a toilet in Paris, to quote Leonard Cohen, I’m  your man; just don’t ask me to guarantee it won’t be ‘hors service.’) A few blocks up the Chemin Vert off the blvd Richard Lenoir — not far from where the fictional Commissar Maigret was fictively asleep — I felt a second wave coming. ((At this point, I should explain — in case you’ve never had this experience — that the poop rubbing against my inner thighs was also giving me a serious rash.)) So I turned up a side-street, and then took another couple of steps down a side from the side and, I swear, at the moment I started taking the crap  I looked up to see a sea of still, silent figures observing me from the second floor of the building across the street. I was being staired down by a warehouse-full of mannequins.)

…. Back to Montmartre and the Libraire Attrape-Coeurs last night: Ordinarily, the last thing a producer wants in her house is a critic already physically suffering before the show even gets started. And given that I was in fine physical form in sacking four of the five shows I’ve seen so far this late spring Paris season, things did not bode well for the already “darkly gloomy” (as the advance pub described him) story-teller Philippe Montaigne and his partner Laurent Berman and their spectacle-reading “Delires and Vertiges Litteraires.”  Even the two glasses of wine I’d been offered before curtain, which in normal circumstances might have turned my hard teeth into putty, were in the process of organizing a  swimming party in my stomach with the ibuprophen I’d ingested six hours earlier, making me so nauseous that for most of ‘Vertiges” I had just that, clutching my clear umbrella and sack and ready to bolt, not wanting to vomit on the one Leo Malet tome in the bookstore, Tardi’s illustrated version of “102, rue de la Gare,” which I’d been leafing through before the show started. (Not evident — bolting — as I realized that with all of the heart-trappers in the back of the bookstore with a dozen visitors, the front door was probably locked, meaning I’d need assistance to get out, and might not make it in time; see above for a reminder of my stomach content control issues.) Not contributing to calming my turbulent tummy was at least one of the texts, which spoke of gorillas eating parents in the zoo, or children eating parents in the zoo. If I’m a little vague on details, it’s because with my focus on confining the ibuprophen, stuffed grape leaves, ginger-cardamom tea, red wine, focaccia bits, and rhubarb coffee cake, retaining the text as well was beyond my capacity. Wait…. Did I just say… text? What “Delires and Vertiges Litteraires” had going for it, compared to the four shows I’ve panned, but specifically Tio Rodrigues’s “This night will never be repeated,” was actual text written not by solipsistic actors and their insular director, but ACTUAL WRITERS: Andre Breton, Jacques Prevert, Pierre Dac, Leo Ferre (a pacifist anarchist who could give some lessons to the hooligans messing it up for the rest of us at the current national demonstrations), Rabelais (the most contemporary of the texts, dealing with how to tranquilly depart this world for the next, basically reduced to deciding everyone you’re leaving behind is a non-complimentary word I understood as “cougnons”), and above all Umberto Eco, whose book about lists had inspired the selection and the show, which terminated with the authors gleefully ripping up their scripts, to the increasingly frenetic crescendos of Donizetti.

Equally significant was that, as compared to most of the other shows I’ve seen, but notably Rodrigues’s and Teatro Praga’s “Zululuzu,” instead of turning the stage into a scream-therapy arena with the audience drafted as their therapists, or cursing  their own black box theater (Teatro Praga), Berman and the aptly-named Montaigne (like your servant, a Perigordin, and who turned his personal dilemmas into lessons on life for the rest of us) had somehow managed the miracle of turning a cramped back-room of a hole-in-the-wall (space-wise; collection wise, Attrape-Coeurs’s vista is vast; last night I noted a Martha Gellhorn omnibus) Montmartre bookstore into stage whose horizon stretched back several hundred years (Rabelais) and yet was at the same time relevant to an audience of neurotic (speaking at least for myself) Parisians. Of course for real actors, who understand what real theater is about and who are less interested in studying their own navels and more in helping us to study our roadmaps, transforming this tiny space into such a rich prism of reflections was no miracle at all.

Crossing the bridge over the Montmartre cemetery on the way home, I noticed that the stone houses of the dead no longer seemed foreboding, but, set against the habitations of the living, of various heights, natural. Traversing the rue Louis Blanc en route to the canal, pants clean, I could not have disagreed more with the “Defense a affiche” (No posters allowed) sign  painted on an elementary school facade which some wag had changed to “Defense a elephant.” A long memory is not such a bad thing when it enlightens the present.

Check the upcoming performances at Laurent Berman’s Theatre de la Vielle Grille in the Latin Quartier by clicking here.

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