Eribon’s memoir comes to life in St. Ann’s Warehouse adaptation

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There is something off in Schaubühne Berlin’s Returning to Reims, the uniquely tailored adaptation of philosopher Didier Eribon’s 2009 memoir, running at St. Ann’s Warehouse through Feb. 25.

That is to say, there is something unusual within the DNA of the production that seems to gently bubble beneath the surface of its conceptualization. Eribon’s memoir is staged as an interior dialogue, framed by three artists trying to record the voice-over for his autobiography.

At least, that is what Katy, played with such an elegiac grace by Nina Hoss, seems to think she is here for. It is most certainly what her director, Paul, played by Bush Moukarzel, hired her for. As for Ali Gadema’s Tony, he would really prefer if time was not wasted in his studio.

Set in a recording studio, whose soundproof tawny walls and grassy-green drapery were brought to life by Nina Wetzel, Returning to Reims ostensibly begins as some kind of unusual multimedia piece in which Eribon’s memoir is simply read to the audience by Hoss as an imaginary documentary based on the text plays on a massive screen above. However, this is a show directed by Thomas Ostermeier, a man well-known in more experimental theater circles for reimagining classic works. Ostermeier does not like to keep things simple. Soon the smooth flow of Katy’s voice is interrupted by a sense of confusion that many would find understandable.

Eribon’s memoir is a homecoming, a return to the small town the philosopher grew up in among other working-class French that, according to Eribon, represented the people the European left wanted to create a new future for. This dream, unfortunately, proved to be one corrupted by a growing intelligentsia that seemingly abandoned its ideals as soon as political power became a reality, replacing them with coded language and a growing gap between the people and their base. As Eribon returns to the homes of families who used to vote communist every election without fail, he wonders what exactly happened that made them run into the arms of the National Front, the French extreme-right party known for its virulent nationalism and isolationism.

For Eribon, who considers himself a class traitor for becoming an artistically inclined writer and going to college, the answer appears to be that people in power have fostered an environment where it is harder to become a part of society. Or, at least, that is what his readers are supposed to know.

Choices made by the in-story director Paul are safe ones that line up much more closely to his own ideas about the “evil forces” that keep people in their place. It is too bad for him that Katy notices these decisions and is not the type of actress to simply shut up and let them be made.

The story conceived here by Ostermeier and Hoss is a clever one, both a quiet piece of political theater as well as a slow-burning criticism of the left that passively abandoned the ideology’s roots in favor of becoming a mainstream, normalized section of the political whole. Its ideals began to crack under pressure, combined with an inability to discuss the problems within its own systems.

As the left’s ideals crack, so does the fourth wall of the show, though with a much more comforting effect rather than an alienating one. Instances where Paul appears to be talking to the audience come up more than once, but one cannot help but wonder if there are one too many such gags within the framework of the show.

The last scene appears to not so much incinerate the fourth wall, but rather gently burn it away, like watching paper crumple up within a fire. That is when Katy, the imaginary actress and Hoss, the actress that plays her, finally fuse in a way that brings the audience much closer to the messages Returning to Reims is trying to convey.

It is an unusual move on the part of Hoss and Ostermeier, but it is just unusual enough that it does not necessarily pull the rug from under the audience in a way that would just be confusing.

The production is so carefully crafted that such a stunt might throw other shows off their axes, but thanks to Ostermeier, there seems to be a level of fluidity here within the show’s dramaturgical architecture.

It is also a wise move to make this production much more understated than a lot of political theater these days, a difficult feat in a time of grand political statements. The dread that flows through the blood of the audience as Eribon describes the disintegration of the ideology he adopted is a palpable one, assisted by Hoss’s powerful rhetorical abilities.

After seeing this show, it would be difficult to imagine Eribon speaking in a voice that sounded like anyone other than Hoss. It would be even harder to not see the fragments of the world that was being built, founded on sacrificing ideals in favor of the tiniest of victories to the point that they are worthless.

Perhaps it is time for a homecoming as Eribon returns to Reims, this time with more of a decisive level of action coming from such adventures.