Thursday, July 9, 2009

Another Chaplin Takes Center Stage

When I was 23 years old, I embarked on a grass-roots arts career by renting a 16mm print of Charlie Chaplin’s film, “Limelight,” and renting a vacant grange hall in northern Vermont where I showed the bittersweet comedy to an enthusiastic full house. Buoyed by my success, I not only started a regular film series but I expanded it to include five small north country towns where I built mailing lists and traveled each week, projecting Bogart, Fellini—and Chaplin onto movie screens and cotton sheets stuck on the walls of library basements and school auditoriums.

I showed a different Chaplin film each season—“City Lights,” “Modern Times,” “The Great Dictator,” “Monsieur Verdoux,” and “The Kid” and even collections of the best Chaplin shorts like “The Pilgrim,” “Pay Day,” and “Shoulder Arms.” I loved the films for their feel of startling wit, graceful movement, and comic improvisation.. I also loved Chaplin’s populist spirit, expressed through his irrepressible underdog, the Little Tramp, constantly skirting disaster but always landing on his feet. When I had my own kids, I resisted exposing them to television for as long as possible. Instead, I showed them the Chaplin films. Indeed, my younger boy thought that the black and white films were the only thing you could ever see on the tube. At the age of five, he was still jabbering to his friends about what he’d seen on his “Chaplin TV.”

So, it probably comes as no surprise that when I found myself with the job of producing Vermont’s huge 400th anniversary celebration for French explorer Samuel de Champlain’s 1609 expedition into the lake that now bears his name, I wanted to represent France and seized on the opportunity to program “Aurelia’s Oratorio” – created by French circus innovator Victoria Chaplin who, with her husband Jean-Baptiste Thierree, pioneered Europe’s Cirque Nouveau that influenced the creation of the Cirque du Soleil, among others.

Victoria Chaplin’s daughter Aurelia Thierree, who stars in the show, resist broadcasting their Chaplin link for obvious reasons. The Little Tramp casts an enormous shadow as the first truly “world figure” whose image was recognized long before television, even in remote Asian and African villages. But Aurelia’s link to Chaplin’s craft is unmistakable. The show’s humor and vision are entirely fresh but its warmth and timeless quality conjures the Little Tramp’s earlier worlds of music hall comedy launched an American century of vaudeville, film, and the TV antics of “Monty Python” and “Saturday Night Live.” Chaplin gave heart to what had been a rough and mechanistic mode of slaptstick. He made us care.

Like the character her grandfather pioneered, Aurelia navigates a world that is bigger than she is. A modern day Alice in Wonderland, she encounters and even becomes an array of whimsical and surreal apparitions. Aurelia pops out of a chest of drawers. She watches puppets – performing a show for other puppets and later picks at a stray thread in her lace dress, making herself disappear. Suspended above the stage, she peers down at the kite that is flying her. Like Belle, arriving at the enchanted castle in Cocteau’s dreamlike “Beauty and the Beast,” she emerges whole through red velvet curtains framing the stage.

Aurelia’s theatrical dreamscape reminds me of Charlie Chaplin’s hallucinations in “The Kid,” “The Gold Rush,” and “Modern Times,” where the unsuspecting Tramp gets caught in factory gears. But Aurelia’s dreams come closer to the upside-down worlds we actually experience when we sleep. In an interview by American Repertory Theater director, Gideon Lester, Aurelia referred to her show as “a mad fantasy, a mixture between a spirit and a dream. In your dreams,” she said, “something absurd happens and you simply adapt to it, and it’s only when you wake up that you question the reality of what happened.”

“Aurelia’s Oratorio” is coming to Northampton because I had to ensure the troupe a week of performances and arrange the expedited shipment of two tons of stage gear, props, and costumes from their last tour date in Russia—in order to lure them back across the Atlantic Ocean. We’ll stage three shows Monday and Tuesday July 13th and 14th to conclude our Champlain festival in Burlington. Looking around New England only one other venue beckoned and seemed appropriate. True, The American Repertory Theater in Cambridge jumped on the chance to book a return engagement once they learned that I was bringing the troupe back to the U.S. But for two days and three shows next weekend “Aurelia’s Oratorio” will take the stage at The Calvin Theater —thanks to Samuel de Champlain. -Jay Craven

Aurelia’s Oratorio will be performed live at the Calvin Theater, Friday July 17th at 7:00pm and Saturday, July 18th at 2pm and 7:00pm. Tickets are available at 413-586-8686 or online at

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