Vivarium show blurs the lines between life and art

Hypnotic 'microperformances' at On the Boards (through April 17) succeed with deadpan acting and an off-kilter look at ordinary experiences.

Crosscut archive image.

In 'L’Effet de Serge,' the title character puts on weekly mini-performances for guests in his apartment.

Hypnotic 'microperformances' at On the Boards (through April 17) succeed with deadpan acting and an off-kilter look at ordinary experiences.

L’Effet de Serge begins where creator Philippe Quesne’s last work ends — with a man dressed in a spacesuit standing in what appears to be a foggy garden, seen through a full-length sliding-glass door. The man starts to speak in a hushed monotone, explaining that this is the final scene from his last production, a technique Quesne uses presumably to create some kind of context for the work to come.

It’s an arresting image and sets the stage for what will become a hypnotic presentation of one- to three-minute “microperformances” that Serge, portrayed by actor Gaëtan Vourc’h, presents over the course of the next hour.

Slowly, the fog lifts and Vourc'h walks through the door to a darkened white box-like room, Serge’s apartment. As he removes his spacesuit and walks around the room, he narrates his actions in an almost inaudible hum and describes the objects he sees — a ping-pong table littered with toys and knickknacks, a TV, a sound system, and books and bags strewn around the floor. He sits down at the table, orders a pizza and begins to play with his toys, the silence punctuated only by his voice on the phone, his munching on potato chips, and a remote control box that delivers the chips to him from across the room.

At this point, it’s easy to wonder if anything of import will ever happen to Serge and the audience. But patience is rewarded in a few minutes as a guest appears, eager to attend one of Serge’s weekly Sunday microperformances. Serge carefully arranges a chair in the center of the room, offers the guest a drink then sits down wordlessly at the table. The guest watches as Serge slowly attaches a sparkler to the top of the motorized box, then lights the sparkler and sends the box turning in circles around the guest. After the requisite one to three minutes, Serge brings the box to a halt, and it’s clear the performance is over. He invites the guest to the following Sunday’s performance and escorts him to the door.

This is the first of the four ritualistic microperformances Serge presents to a changing array of “friends” over the next 45 minutes. In his near-silent way, Serge maintains total control over every aspect of the performance experience, determining by which door his guests enter, what they drink (he offers only red wine, water, or orange juice), where to sit and how long after the performance they may stay. In one sexually charged exchange, a female guest takes her time eating a slice of pizza so that she is the last one to leave, clearly hoping Serge will ask her to stay. He watches in silence as she takes bite by bite, then quietly sees her out when she’s done.

It would give away too much of the fun of L’Effet de Serge to describe the other microperformances, but suffice it to say you’ll probably never hear or see Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” in quite the same way again, and may well find new pleasure in the music of John Cage. Quesne’s capacity to look at common objects or experiences anew turns Serge into an everyman, albeit one with an off-kilter sense of himself and the world.

The success of L’Effet de Serge, whose title translates literally to “the effect of Serge” but is also a play on words referring to heating of the planet, depends largely on the character of Serge, and Vourc’h plays him to deadpan perfection. Vourc’h never breaks the hint of a smile, even when he’s ridiculously costumed in neon-wire fake eyeglasses. Like Quesne, Serge is a serious artist and remains steadfastly focused on making art of even the smallest, everyday actions.

The cast is fleshed out by a group of non-actors, some of them local On the Boards patrons and some of them members of Quesne’s staff. They bring an air of reality to the show, blurring the lines between life and art, which seems to be the point Quesne is making. We should be grateful to him for creating such a haunting work that demonstrates once again the power we have as humans to find beauty in the least likely places.

If you go: L’Effet de Serge, by Philippe Quesne and Vivarium Studio, through April 17 at On the Boards, 100 W. Roy St. Tickets cost $25 and are available at the box office, by phone (206-217-9888), or online.


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