In New York City, as in all cities, movement set to music is often the only escape route. Richmond Shepard’s Children of Paradise, a play with mime that will be performed this week at the Theatre for the New City, offers vital respite. It is calm, and it is beautiful. As I watched, I felt a gentle waterfall flowing through my brain.
Shepard envisioned decades ago a theatrical adaptation of Michael Carne’s film Les Enfants du Paradis. Only now, after what must have been a magnificent personal and professional ride, has the play taken form in Children of Paradise. It is New York City’s honor to host its premiere.
As the lights dim, Shepard steps onstage and asks nicely if audience members can please silence their cell phones. He proceeds to explain the play’s history. During its occupation of France in and around the 1940’s, the German government commissioned Marcel Carne to create a film. The government would fund it fully in exchange for Mr. Carne’s agreement that it would remain apolitical. The purpose of such agreement was to convince the French people that their occupation was benevolent. Carne chose a screenplay by Jacques Prevert and over the span of many years, invited everyone he loved to participate. I imagine he felt the final product was taking forever.
These artists together told the story of Les Enfants du Paradis. In it, four men — an artist, an actor, a criminal and an aristocrat — fall in love with a beautiful courtesan called Garance. Comedy and tragedy ensue, and not surprisingly, everything is still complicated at the end of the day. Shepard watched this film many years ago and began work on a masterpiece that arrived in the United States at the end of January 2013. Now comes its new beginning.
Fourteen artists compose the acrobatic mime-play. Some are mimes, some are actors, and others are gymnasts. Every single one is a voluntary member of The Mime Guild, an organization based in Los Angeles. A long and luxurious piano stream runs the length of the performance. The space is mostly dark and silent but interrupted by an occasional car horn and police siren calling from the street outside. A gentle reminder that as art sustains life, life sustains art.
Costumes are simply black, as is the stage. Scarlett red and orange the color of a peach add character. The team’s leader, a brilliant actor named Chris Douros, wears white and sometimes appears as a mime. Wrestling with the seduction of romance and the reality of being alive, characters fight and cry and make amends and kill and love and fly and speak and dance. While Les Infants fictionalized the life of the legendary mime Debureau, Shepard’s Children of Paradise takes form from the actual events of Debureau’s life and career, recorded by his son 170 years ago. If I were Shepard, I would be most proud of my decision to keep it real.
Though tranquil, the play really did unfold like a tangle of vibrant weeds. It reminded me of something I learned once about aspen trees, those tall skinny towers that Ansel Adams brought to the American imagination. “Quaking Aspens,” as some people call them, grow in immense clonal colonies. They are born from a single seed and spread seas of root sprouts miles abound. The colonies cover tens of millions of acres around the world. The largest known colony Pando (Latin for “I spread”) encompasses 106 acres, has around 47,000 stems and is estimated to be more than 800,000 years old.
In other words, Richmond Shepard’s Children of Paradise is powerful. And it is only playing at Theatre for the New City (155 First Avenue, Manhattan) until next weekend. Get advance tickets here (or at the door).
*Writers’s Note: Wikipedia gets credit for exact dates and figures and other things I did not know before. Everyone is grateful for wiki’s important work, whether we know it or not.