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  • Paula Tiberius

O Réjane!

La Belle Époque was a heady time for artists, a period of great creativity that remains iconic and romantic in our collective imagination. Imagine seeing new work by Gaugin, Matisse or Toulouse-Lautrec, listening to Stravinsky or Eirk Satie at a salon, or watching Art Nouveau architecture and design spring up around Paris. Change was in the air.

Playwright Illana Turner and director Christopher Sivertsen bring this romantic period to life in a new play about the formidable actress Réjane who helped transform French culture, grabbing it by the throat and turning its head to look at poverty, struggle and the rights of women, not only with her choice of roles, but also in her personal life, which was bound inextricably to her career. It’s no surprise that she was Ibsen’s favorite “Nora” in A Doll’s House, which sees the main character leaving family life to discover herself.

The play is on now at The Bootleg Theater running Thursday through Sundays until Christmas. I strongly recommend it.

Cara Pifko gets inside the spirit of Réjane like a caged tiger, presenting us with a fully grounded volcano of a modern woman trapped in an era that doesn’t let her sign her own acting contracts. Her inner rage is at once productive and destructive as she creates, creates, creates – performing in play after play on tour, frolicking and fucking everyone including her theater-owner husband Porel (played wonderfully by Joseph Will) and giving birth to two children whom she adores, but is also most happy to get away from. I have to admit that in one scene I burst into tears (quietly, ok? It’s the theah-tah!) when Réjane whirled a rolling stage piece around and let the props fall off in a beautifully staged moment that marked the turning point for her to finally reject her bucolic home life. Pifko rocked it, thoroughly.

Illana Turner herself plays Blanche, Réjane’s best friend and counter-point, an actress chosen for the prestigious national theater, but who plays it safe with her career, performing in ‘well-made’ plays that depict rich people doing frivolous things. Turner shows us the irony of the art world with this character who wins her place early on, but who knows she will never be a revolutionary. With Réjane, she shares “The Lover,” a fellow actor who gladly enjoys both women. In this big role, Patrick Wenk-Wolff turns from comic to sober on a dime throughout and keeps the audience on their toes as he flows seamlessly into the role of yet another lover, and then again into the gay clothing designer who helps Réjane change fashion history by ditching the corset (amen, sister!).

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Réjane (Cara Pifko) and Blanche (Illana Turner) whirling around with Porel (Joseph Will) and The Lover (Patrick Wenk-Wolff) in one of the most spectacular physical numbers, when the gals head to the Moulin Rouge for some dramatic research.

Speaking of history, there is a lot of it doled out within the play, which might have become too didactic for me, were it not for Valerie McCann as The Sage of Paris, whose extraordinary energy, physical strength and grace were so hypnotizing that I barely noticed I was learning facts about French law! And by the way, it is interesting to know that while Réjane won the right to sign her own contracts without her husband’s approval in that famous court battle, the law didn’t change for other women until 61 years later. Réjane’s mother, played by Cecilia de Rico in a stoic-but-cheeky turn, represents this traditional status quo, as she steers Réjane toward marriage and settling down, even in the face of her daughter’s obvious domestic claustrophobia.

The audience was privy to every costume change of every character with wardrobe rolling racks out in the open, and indeed, no performer ever left the stage! The clever rolling set pieces became dressing rooms, stage backdrops, birthing rooms, train cars – you name it – the actors were perpetually under our gaze, creating new dramas that flowed in and out, often punctuated by Réjane’s fitful bursts of physical expression, perhaps a nod to the emerging modern dance movement at the time.

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Rolling set pieces!

The physicality of the play is astounding. Between the constant set restructuring, Can-Can dancing and hot sex, you really feel like you’ve been through something important by the end of the play, and it’s all set to the très apropos music created for the play by Réjane’s great-great granddaughter Adrien Reju (how cool must she be?) along with Sébastien Miel.

As a feminist artist in the 21st century, I was left with a meaningful connection to the past, and a validation of my own domestic struggles to ‘have it all.’ This play is important because it keeps alive and does justice to the legacy of a pioneer artist who forged the way for a new way to look at the world.

As if to honor the viewer’s cathartic experience, the cast of Réjane takes a photo of the audience at the end of the play, just as they apparently did at Réjane’s own theater, Théâtre Réjane, which she opened in 1919.

Experience your own slice of La Belle Époque at The Bootleg Theater. Go now.

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