In a world where ‘art’ has become increasingly difficult to define, L’Immédiat stands out as a rare thing: a work that can only be defined as ‘art’ and which could only be conceived by an artist, in this case, Camille Boitel.
L’Immédiat is an exquisite work of physical theater, combining acrobatics, pantomime and performance art. Boitel’s team of gangly, feral but implacable performers, wordlessly communicate man’s perpetual state of instability. The players inhabit a world where fragility and precariousness are the status quo. Implosion is constant, survival questionable. Furniture tilts, crashes and crumbles, lights flicker and broken records play on a loop. The atmosphere has a sense of the post-apocalyptic, as if all the characters – running around in underwear and fake fur coats – have been surviving in a cavern of chaos for years, without anyone bothering to tell them the war is over. There is no narrative to L’Immédiat, but it has strong echoes of abandonment and effort. Water appears again and again – in cups, bottles and gallon tubs – as the most coveted thing, and the players create epic constructions in their striving for it.
L’Immédiat opens with some sparks in the dark auditorium. A bucket falls. A light on a crane-length arm hovers over the stage. In the investigatory tilting of its lamp, it inhabits the uncanny, its puppet-like nature reminiscent of Pixar’s introductions. A woman enters her apartment, a creaking disheveled place with old furniture, and everything, in an episode of perfect comedic timing, falls at just the right moment, at just the right angle. The silence between a thud and the next plop are what make you laugh. After many, many, minutes a man shoots up from underneath the pink satin duvet – you thought it was just a bed. The movement is a whirlwind, the surprises unending.
Within the first five minutes of L’Immédiat it becomes terrifyingly obvious that there are two things you would not want to be: 1) someone sitting in the front row (within a few minutes all had evacuated) and 2) L’Immédiat’s production manager. The first section is the most breathless, and has the highest concentration of inconceivables: bodies climbing up falling-down ladders, a mile-high mountain of cardboard boxes tumbling to the ground, dozens of multi-gallon plastic buckets tumbling from the rafters, humans climbing into, out of, and staying in cabinets and drawers – like a bunch of misfit cats. The acrobatic tumbling, falling and climbing continues, and the man in the bed is soon replaced by a man in a purple dress continually popping out of a wardrobe. At one juncture, he throws himself a party inside it, complete with confetti, blow-tickler and mini disco ball.
The rhythm between the players, the action and the seeming accidents – in sound and movement – is masterful, a joy to witness, and an inconceivable thing to execute. How can pandemonium be choreographed to such precision, and still feel precarious and real? It is a testament to Boitel, his gifts as an orchestrator, and the not-seen-enough circus arts that this is possible. The furniture and props have been collected by Boitel and his company for years off the streets and sidewalks of France. They were fragile to begin with, and are, after years of wear, increasingly wonky. Boitel’s troupe performs on, with, under and over them often with the full weight of one or more human bodies perched at a perilous angle. The risks needed to execute L’Immediat are very real, occasionally violent, and part of the work’s point: life is fragile, unpredictable, a wild ride.
While much of the audience erupted in gleeful mirth with every physical Marxian (as in Brothers) wisecrack, some were not so entranced. “That was depressing” said a flat, firm, American voice upon the end of the show. While L’Immediat is not, to this critic, depressing, it is comedy imbued with a distinct and poignant pathos. Occasionally reminiscent of Buster Keaton or Jackie Gleason’s “Poor Soul,” the near-silent performers communicate the shrug that can be life. For a full hour their efforts are Sisyphean. In L’Immediat, both gravity and levitation are futily defied.
In a running joke, a woman (and later a man), is continually drawn up to the ceiling, starting with a levitating braid of hair. Eventually the full body is upended, and the players’ answer is to bury the body under miscellaneous furniture, negating all possible movement and maybe even life, an absurd answer to an absurd problem. The American desire for triumph over all is not going to be pacified in L’Immediat which more fully conjures life’s complexities than any linear happy-ending could.
If ever there was a way to fully embody the sense of feeling “off kilter,” Boitel does it in the penultimate sequence of the show. In an extraordinary feat of physical comedy, he performs at a near 45-degree angle. Life lived at full tilt. The furniture is hurriedly, and hilariously, adjusted to mimic his angle as he moves across the stage. The final touch is provided when he can finally reach the massive industrial light hanging from the rafters, and tilt it to his appropriate angle. In a split second, once returned to earth, he rights himself – as do all the props – in a brilliant and witty comic turn.
Boitel, who along with his sister Raphaëlle (also an acclaimed circus performer), got his early circus training at Annie Fratellini’s school, has said that L’Immediat the show is ending. The fact that for its New York premiere L’Immediat was billed as part of the Tilt Kids’ Festival, which while supposedly suitable for ages 8 and up (most of the children in the audience were younger than that), shows just how misunderstood the circus arts are in America. In his program notes Boitel says “man’s existence is fraught with defaults, accidents, and imbalances. And this is what kills him,” sounding more like a moody French New Wave narration rather than something intended for children. Maybe the next time Boitel has a new show, New York will be ready, and bill him correctly.