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Cal Performances' 'Eonnagata': Surprisingly Dull

February 10, 2011

The physical production based on the life of Charles de Beaumont doesn't do justice to its inspiration

Charles de Beaumont lived a lively life.

Born in the French town of Tonnerre in 1728, Beaumont (also known as the Chevalier d'Éon) was at various times a war hero, a cross-dressing spy for King Louis XV in Russia, a diplomat to the French government in England, a political exile and a writer of factually questionable biographies. He spent the first half of his life dressed as a man and the second as a woman. But his gender remained a mystery until his death.

A career this colorful seems like perfect inspiration for a work of art. Yet “Eonnagata,” a 90-minute physical theatre production based on the Chevalier d'Éon’s story currently playing at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley under the auspices of Cal Performances, is inexorably drab.

This unfortunate outcome is puzzling. Created and performed by three icons of the modern stage – French ballerina Sylvie Guillem, Canadian director, writer and actor Robert Lepage and British choreographer Russell Maliphant – “Eonnagata” also features costumes by the late British fashion designer Alexander McQueen. The name of Guillem alone could fill a two thousand-seat auditorium like Zellerbach Hall to capacity.

Taking its title from “eonism,” a now-dated term coined in 1920 by the British psychologist Henry Havelock Ellis to describe transgender behavior, and “Onnegata,” an ancient Kabuki theatre technique whereby male actors embody female characters in a stylized fashion, “Eonnagata” draws on the life of the Chevalier d'Éon as a conceit for exploring the blurred lines between masculinity and femininity.

However, the combined star-power involved in the production fails to mine the subject of sexual fluidity with anywhere near the originality and insight of works like Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel “Orlando” or the 1999 Hollywood movie “Boys Don’t Cry.”

“Eonnagata” evokes, rather than tells, the Chevalier d'Éon’s story. Throughout the production, the performers embody the male and female qualities of the protagonist’s dual nature through visual metaphor-laden, movement-driven tableau-vivants sporadically ornamented by spoken texts in English and French.

In one memorable moment, Guillem and Maliphant perform a slow duet on either side of a table with a mirrored surface. The constantly shifting vision of Maliphant’s muscular masculine trunk coupled with Guillem’s dainty, hoop-skirted feminine legs is unsettling and beautiful. In another, Lepage wields a saber on a darkened stage against lighting designer Michael Hulls’ dramatic flashes of white light. Later on in the performance, that same weapon becomes a pen, this time wielded by Guillem, writing a letter while contorting herself over a wooden table.

But “Eonnagata” only touches such lyrical heights on rare occasions.

Part of the problem is the episodic structure of the production, which moves without variety in length or tone from one ponderous moment inspired by the Chevalier d'Éon’s career to the next. The shapelessness of the work, coupled with monochrome visuals —the mostly darkened stage and black and white costumes— have the effect of making a fascinating figure seem boring.

But a bigger issue stems from the possibility that the artists might identify a little too closely with the subject of their artwork.

It’s certainly fitting that this production, with its interest in pushing sexual boundaries, should be brought to life by individuals well-known for pushing artistic boundaries. Guillem, a former prima ballerina with the Paris Opera Ballet, caused an international scandal when she eschewed dancing “Giselle” and “Swan Lake” in France for a globe-trotting experimental career. Lepage has achieved as much acclaim for forging heady, visually-arresting stage poems such as “Elsinore,” (a one-man version of “Hamlet”) as he has for directing blockbusters like “Kà” for Cirque du Soleil and Maliphant has taken modern dance into new realms through the incorporation of martial arts like capoeira.

But creative deviance for its own sake can sometimes be trying. In “Eonnagata,” the artists take an opportunity to move beyond their usual skill sets and are mostly found wanting. Though light on his feet, the stocky, 53-year-old Lepage is no Nijinsky and the choreography in the one major dance sequence involving all three performers suffers as a result. The rough movements, which mostly feature the trio sliding their torsos around on tables, lack grace.

The sections in which Guillem, a ballet superstar, opens her mouth to speak fall similarly flat. She struggles to make sense of the rhythm in a long opening monologue summarizing Chevalier d'Éon’s life in verse. A breathy exchange with Lepage in French later on in the performance has no vocal nuance. And the less said about the brassy ode to the French Revolution that the dancer sings at one point in an off-kilter contralto, the better.

Only Maliphant manages to acquit himself relatively well moving, acting and speaking.

At the climax of “Eonnagata,” Lepage, taking up the mantle of the Chevalier d'Eon in his final moments, ends up as a corpse on the dissection table. A cold white light bathes the center of the stage as Guillem and Maliphant, dressed in medical garb with saber-shaped scalpels at the ready, loom over the Chevalier’s sexually ambiguous body.

We ought to be bursting to see how the answer to a key question asked earlier on in the production will play itself out:

The Chevalier d'Eon
Has posed us a riddle
Is she a he or is he a she
Or somewhere in the middle?

The answer is in the history books. And in any case, we’re far beyond caring.



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