‘State of Siege’ at Zellerbach Hall is sickening political allegory with hope for resistance

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Jean-Louis Fernandez/Courtesy

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“Comment vous appelez-vous?” asked an older gentleman to a member of the audience after working his way down an aisle of Zellerbach Hall on Oct. 21, a microphone in his hand, jazz playing softly behind him.

“I don’t speak French,” replied his selected patron, to the crowd’s surprised laughter. After translating and receiving her response, he told her that he “knew a Marianne, a long time ago …”

He repeated this bit with two other women in the audience, dancing with the last before joining his joyous, swaying castmates onstage. Instantly charmed, the audience felt peacefully at ease, a laudable feat for the first few moments of a relatively unknown play. Then the sirens began.

Albert Camus’ “Stage of Siege” was written in 1948, a response to the fascist governments of World War II and the atrocities executed therein. Set in the small town of Cádiz, off the coast of Spain, the play follows the frightful and confusion-filled rise of government bureaucrat Plague (Serge Maggiani) and his secretary, Death (Valérie Dashwood).

Director Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota chose to update the play’s setting, modifying lines to include recent atrocities in Iraq and Syria, displaying text messages on the play’s multimedia screens and, most visually, costuming the town’s Governor (Pascal Vuillemot) to resemble President Donald Trump. The Governor not only donned a waspy, blonde wig, but he also expressed regret that he could not go hunting when a plague strikes his village, cementing the aptness of the comparison in the context of ongoing headlines about the president’s golfing trips. All the more, the ease with which the Governor allows Plague and Death to take control hauntingly reminded the play’s audience of how easily the present administration could give way to total authoritarianism.

Though many plays and musicals have claimed to address the election of President Trump, Théâtre de la Ville’s “State of Siege” is among the most relevant and well-executed theatrical productions of the contemporary political era. Its new perspective on U.S. politics could perhaps be attributed to Demarcy-Mota and the Parisian troupe’s French point of view, as well as their utilization of a work that had been heretofore largely unknown in the United States.

While the play is performed in its original French, the English line-by-line translations on screen were just as ominous, sharp and poetic. The audience’s loud murmurs of agreement after lines of political potency or lines from which contemporary parallels drew themselves were indication enough that all members of the audience, regardless of French fluency, were affected by the prose.

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Jean-Louis Fernandez/Courtesy

This prose was most effective when it conveyed upsetting parallels between Plague and Death’s nonsensical administration and the inane bureaucracy of real-world government agencies. Through these equally humorous and horrifying scenes, the play successfully maintained a balance in its tone between the terrors experienced by its townsfolk and the menacing laughter from those in power. “State of Siege” masterfully utilized multimedia to introduce its tyrannical figures, with each receiving an unflinching black-and-white close-up on three overhead screens, an unsettling interpretation of and homage to Andy Warhol’s screen tests. In but a few of the show’s visually stunning aspects, the floor rose and shifted, snow fell across the stage and fire appeared in mid-air.

All the more, the set design of “State of Siege” was at once both decadent and minimalist, serving the purposes of each scene in increasingly unexpected ways while its main set piece remained stagnant. This set was gorgeously transformed and altered scene by scene with Yves Collet and Christophe Lemaire’s brilliantly executed lighting design, preventing any sense of visual repetition.

Yet while the production was technically flawless, the French theater company faltered in its choice to have Victoria (Hannah Levin Seiderman), a white woman, sing Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” in English to her white boyfriend Diego (Matthieu Dessertine) as they whispered words of love. Either the French company did not think to research the song’s meaning as a descriptive visual of the United States’ murderous anti-Black history, or worse, knew this meaning and still found it applicable to a white love story. Though undismissable and deserving of due admonishment, this questionable choice was the sole defect in an overall outstanding production.

Told through both explicit and implicit metaphors, “State of Siege” requires its audience to constantly process and ponder that which it displays. It obligates their questioning and application of its chilling messages to the world once they exit the theater. Far more than a political satire or drama, “State of Siege” physically sickens its viewers and then provides hope for resistance in the face of authoritarianism, delivering an immersive theatrical experience that forces an examination of all purported forms of democracy.

Caroline Smith covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].

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