Going to the Theater in Paris

You don't have to brush up on your French to enjoy theater performances in Paris.

Unless your French is good, and I mean very good, theater going is probably out of the question when in Paris. I once got too cocky about my ability to understand spoken French and suffered through an intermissionless production of Brecht’s “Arturo Ui” in which I understood only the names of a few vegetables and a list of American cities.

But on a recent visit to the City of Light my theater jones started acting up, and I managed to see three shows in as many nights in which language was not a barrier.

There is actually a fair bit of Anglophone theater in Paris some of it amateur, some of it imported, and some of it home-grown. You just have to know where to look.

My first experience was at the Irish Cultural Center (ICC) near the Sorbonne in the fifth arrondisement. The ICC brings in productions from Ireland, most of them quite small in scale, for very brief visits.

I was fortunate enough to be in Paris on the one night when the ICC presented “Silent,” a one-man show written and performed by Pat Kinevane of Dublin’s Fishamble theater company. I left wishing I had not been so fortunate.

Kinevane is a gifted performer (he received a standing ovation) and a great deal of passion has been invested in this monologue by an alcoholic and mentally deranged streetperson in which we learn how he became that way, but the piece left me neither shaken nor stirred. Still, with admission at just five euros, it was hard to complain.

The next night I was at one of Paris’ most famous theaters, the Theatre du Rond Point, just off the Champs Elysees, to see “Semianyki (La Famille)” by Teatr Semianyki, a group of gifted Russian clowns. And since the show was 99% mime and 1% nonsense chatter, language was no problem at all.

In the Soviet era, circus arts were lavishly supported by the state but when the USSR collapsed the government subsidies collapsed along with it and those who had devoted their education to clowning were in the very unfunny position of having to fend for themselves. The goal of many clown colleges became to form troupes that could create their own material and market it. Semianyki is one of the results.

The show is a dark, sometimes a very dark mediation on the family, filled with the sort of ironic touches that make it seem very . . . well, French. That’s not to say that it is not frequently very, very funny. And boy do these clowns know how to milk a curtain call! The 25 euros I paid for a front row seat was a terrific bargain.

My third night’s show was another bargain, just 24 euros for another front row seat at “How To Become Parisian in One Hour?” (the question mark is part of the title) by the young French comedian Olivier Giraud at the Theatre de la Main d’Or, a sort of Off-Broadway house in the 11th arrondisement.

When Giraud pitched Paris theater impresarios on his concept of a one-man show in English poking fun at the French they laughed in his face. So Giraud produced it himself and, two years into the show’s run, his revenge has been sweet. His is one of the most popular shows in Paris and a US tour is in the offing.

The night I saw it, the place was packed to the gills with people from an astonishing number of countries and, perhaps most surprising, a large number of Parisians. I know this because Giraud opens the show by asking where everyone is from.

The show, more of a stand-up act really, is simplicity itself. Taking typical situations in which you, the visitor to Paris, might find yourself – in a shop, at a restaurant, in a taxi, at a nightclub, and (if you’re lucky) making love to a Parisian – Giraud first demonstrates typical tourist behavior and then the proper Parisian way to do it.

The humor is broad and often bawdy (he has the politesse to warn the easily offended to step outside before things get really raunchy). Giraud has a mobile face and seems to take particular delight in mimicking brainless and vapid American women. But he’s equally cutting when he turns his attention to his fellow Parisians. Indeed, he seems to confirm some of the more unflattering stereotypes harbored by foreign visitors.

On the other hand, if all Parisians are as pleasant company as M. Giraud, how bad can they be?

So it turns out it is possible to see theater in Paris without being a French scholar, and my average satisfaction level was higher than it usually is when I try something similar in New York. Maybe next time I’ll try Racine at the Comedie-Française.

Then again, maybe not.

For More Information . . .

Irish Cultural Center (ICC)

Theatre du Rond-Point

Olivier Giraud