Philippe Quesne’s La Mélancolie des Dragons
  • Courtesy PICA/Martin Argyroglo
  • Philippe Quesne’s La Mélancolie des Dragons

“Large scale theater work” is how TBA described Philippe Quesne’s newest production, La Mélancolie des Dragons. It’s fair enough, I suppose—it would be hard to call it a “play,” exactly, lacking as it is in traditional conflict and plot. And while it feels elaborate (a car and trailer on stage, multiple 30-foot balloons, smoke machines), I’m still hard pressed to call it “large.”

It certainly starts small: four metalhead dudes in a small hatchback with a trailer in tow, snow on the ground and the surrounding trees, no movement except some headbanging and goofing off in the car. For a few minutes—a long time, really, for a play to begin without dialogue or much movement at all—they play snippets of American and European metal songs, some French ballads, and a bit of classical.

Eventually they sleep, and a mysterious woman arrives on a bicycle. She approaches the car slowly, stepping lightly in the snow. There’s something eerie about it, but when she knocks on the window, the guys wake up, get out of the car, and greet her with kisses on the cheek. She’s just there to fix the car.

That’s the thing about Mélancolie, there are moments of subtle strangeness, but everything is always exactly as it seems. The fake snow on the ground, at first assumed to be set dressing for the play, is actually set dressing in the play. One of the metalheads reveals this by lifting it up and retrieving a power cord from underneath it. (Later they roll it up, create a ski jump out of it, and generally revel in its fakeness.)

The metalheads introduce themselves to the woman, Isabel, there to fix the car. She seems to be familiar with them, or at least their purpose: They’re a touring amusement park, and their park is based on a number of things they’re interested in: art, music, nature, children’s books, bubbles. (Exemplary line: “Isabel! Bubble machine!”)

The metalheads are revealed to be a group of seven when three more pile out of the trailer, in a clown-car type sight gag that works improbably well. In fact, most of the jokes in this play are ineffably simple and hilarious. A large part of the humor comes from the overwhelming simplicity of this crew of amusers.

Some of it, admittedly, comes from their foreignness. The metalheads are probably French, but there’s a language barrier between them and Isabel, so they speak English. When they pause in the middle of a sentence describing their art, one expects them to be capital-T Thinking, to be coming up with the high-minded critical art terminology to describe their work, but no, they’re simply trying to remember the word “inflated.”

The same is true of their amusement park. The “library” is a few books on art, an anthology of European philosophy, some picture books on nature, and a few children’s books. But everyone in the play is fascinated by it. They’re proud of their park, which features water (a small electric fountain in a plastic tub), air (a fan), “the combination of water and air” (that bubble machine), and a handful of other exhibits.

One keeps expecting something magical to happen, but it simply never does. Some of the visual gags border on the absurd (Isabel climbs fully under the hood of the car to diagnose it), but generally everything odd is explained immediately and eagerly by the anachronistic metalheads with the funny accents.

It’s more or less impossible to describe the comedy and joy of seeing Quesne’s play at the end of TBA. After all the challenging work on display, the thought-provoking discussions, and the intensive workshops, it’s a relief to be reminded of the innocence, joy, and community of even the lamest of art. Of course, presented in an elaborate stage production, at a renowned art festival, with little semblance of story, the play belies the challenging, provocative artist behind the work, and reminds us that good art, no matter when or where, will leave us exhilarated and slightly lightheaded.