Debacle is a word that means a lot more in French than it does in English, and Débâcles, making its American debut this weekend at the Yale Cabaret, is a piece that probably means a lot more to its French than to its American audience. In seeming anticipation of what might be lost in translation, the 90-minute show comes with a two-page introduction from its author, Marion Aubert, which begins with a definition of the title: “1) The breaking of ice in a river or frozen harbor. 2) Fig. and fam. Regrettable change that carries off individual fortune, governmental prosperity, opinions or social mores, as the ice of a river breaks up and is carried away. ‘The French debacle of 1940.’ 3) Med. Colic, diarrhea.” The play succeeds in being a combination of all three of these elements: It’s a story of how the heat of the Second World War breaks up and overturns the lives of a little French community, and, like a river, the show flows from scene to scene with an energy that sometimes overruns the banks.
Aubert writes that she “wanted to write an epic of the French Resistance. I wrote a tragic-comical serial about defeat and love.” Like a serial, the play unfolds in discrete “episodes,” whose titles are projected onto a wall while a large digital clock counts down. Like an epic, the play, which — with twelve actors and a percussionist — has the largest cast I’ve ever seen at the Cabaret, creates a little world that fills the theater from one side to the other.
The central characters are members of a stereotypical French working class family, albeit one thrown into quiet disarray. They sit in a fusty salon de famille, complete with porcelain tea set. The father, Paul (Matthew Conway DRA ’18), is an invalid veteran who sits in his pajamas and reads magazines. He also has been sleeping with his daughter and is a supporter of Maréchal Pétain’s Vichy government. Aurélie (Emily Reeder DRA ’17) is a housewife who denigrates her son Simon’s heroic aspirations of resistance and elevates her angelic daughter, Camille (Anna Crivelli DRA ’17). She’s been sleeping with Rémy (Jakeem Powell DRA ’19), the father of Camille’s child. Simon (Arturo Soria DRA ’19) wants nothing more than to be in the resistance, and nothing more than to be a lady’s man. To entertain himself, he shelters a young Jewish woman, Clara (Catherine Rodriguez DRA ’18), and her mute aunt (Caitlin Crombleholme DRA ’19), in his closet.
“I think think Simon is resisting! I don’t know what he’s up to in his bedroom!” Aurélie exclaims, in the play’s first words. This opening line gives us the key to the work that follows. The play’s central preoccupations are sex and torture, and how the borders between the two are virtually erased in the trauma of the Occupation. Simon’s “resistance” is really just a kind of masturbation: Clara is his “beautiful Jewess,” whom he’s ostensibly hiding from the Nazis but really keeping as his own prisoner. When they quarrel, Simon shouts, “Don’t make me denounce you!” as if Clara’s political and romantic lives were two sides of the same coin. Camille’s Rémy has an affair with the local SS officer, Martynas (Josh Goulding DRA ’17), who spends the whole play looking not for Jews hidden by Simon or the midwife, Madame Lisa (Rory Pelsue), but for pictures of Rémy’s “crown jewels” taken by the reporter for the resistance newspaper. Martynas’s interrogation of the photographer becomes an impromptu therapy session, as he complains about his sexual frustrations in the German army. And when he finally gets Rémy to himself, he alternates between seducing and interrogating him, treating his lover as a prisoner, his prisoner as a lover. The aging Madame Lisa is called upon to offer various kinds of help, but, in between writing absurd entries in her journal and tending to her hidden Jews (“I’ve made you a bacon omelette!” she says, in one of the secretly most amusing lines of the play), gets her kicks out of seducing younger men and making love to them in her bathtub.
If Débâcles has a thesis, it’s that the personal is political and the political is personal. This is political theater. Aubert’s characters are like cartoons and, with Simon’s sailor cap and Madame Lisa’s floral dress, the play feels like a deranged, X-rated Tintin comic. At times director Elizabeth Dinkova elicits a Brechtian performance from her actors, complete with histrionic gestures and songs — Tina Turner’s “Rolling Down the River” sung a capella by the play’s token communist (Amandia Jahava), and Leonard Cohen’s “The Partisan.” Cohen’s song is woven into the final scenes first as a lullaby for Camille’s baby, and then as a haunting chorus number in the closing scene, when, as footage of falling bombs is projected on the set, Camille pushes her pram through the war-torn village and tells her baby about what has just happened to France. This final scene is unexpected and deeply moving. “You were very wanted,” Camille says to the child, “but you weren’t born at the right time.” As Camille clasps the infant to her breast amid the rubble and the corpses, we see that she is the real resistor: creating and nurturing new life in the chaos of war turns out to be the most heroic deed imaginable.
It would be wrong, though, to say that this play has a single conclusion. It is often confusing and sometimes itself confused. But that seems to be part of the point: War makes things messy. And stand-out performances from the whole cast — particularly Rory Pelsue, cross-dressing as Madame Lisa and Jeremy O. Harris as the “Handsome Blonde” — mean that we don’t have to worry too much about what the play means or is trying to say. We can enjoy the spectacle.