Mutata’s Realm Beyond
Mutata Theziri – actor, clown, musician and puppeteer – tells stories about ogresses and other creatures in his hybrid theater.
To the east of Père Lachaise Cemetery – beyond the 70,000 dead, among them many famous writers, storytellers, musicians, actors and artists lying on the hillsides – is a small theater/cultural center called L’Ogresse, set on a hilltop corner overlooking a square, a church and a bakery.
This independent, nonprofit theater is run by a performance artist named Mutata Theziri, who opened it in 2000 because even with his multiple talents – actor, clown, musician and puppeteer – he had a hard time finding places to perform. “With my looks, it didn’t matter whether or not I was talented,” he says. “The answer was always no.” He opened L’Ogresse because he “wanted a place where I could perform and be my own master.”
Seven years later, L’Ogresse is alive and… well, surviving, thanks to its members, generous private sponsors, rentals for events, and profits from the food and drinks served at extremely affordable prices.
But there is another reason it survives: L’Ogresse is a magical place, a realm beyond, where on a given day or night, people of all ages might be found watching Theziri staging Jean Genet’s Deathwatch as (of all things) a puppet show. Or they might be listening to jazz or traditional French music by such groups as La Djipe qui Swingue or Les Ongles Noirs. On another evening, Theziri might be performing stories like “My Life with the Wave” by Octavio Paz, but not exactly in the original version: He decided Paz was misogynistic, so “I changed everything,” he says with a laugh.
He also plays the traditional music of a variety of ancient cultures on the flute with his group MKDN and “uses his voice” to sing or tell stories with another group, Cordes à Cordes.
Theziri says he didn’t talk until he was eight years old. Since then, he has never stopped telling stories. He looks like a trapeze artist (without the mustache) and describes himself as “always having been short.” He then laughs like an evil genius and takes on the voice of an ogre to tell you about the hundreds of buttons in the basket by the stairwell, “from all the women I’ve eaten up.”
This brilliant storyteller keeps his audience spellbound with tales about growing up in the 1960s in a small village in Kabylia, Algeria, where he created a theater in a treetop overlooking the village square (does this explain L’Ogresse’s hilltop perch?), and about real-life ogresses that send children off to catch scorpions for medicinal purposes or about spiders that end up in your car and demand to be taken back to where they came from. His stories are told in the traditional Berber style but with his own personal flair, as though you were sitting in his living room.
And that’s exactly what watching a performance in L’Ogresse feels like. Theziri believes there should be no boundaries between an artist and the public; during the Deathwatch performances, for example, audience members were free to wander behind the scenes to watch him pulling the strings in front of an elaborate system of cameras (he used real surveillance cameras to make a point; the play’s original title is Haute Surveillance).
Born in Algiers in 1961, he was raised in Kabylia, and has now been granted official exile status by the French government, a fitting status for this exile from the traditional theater. He performed on a classic stage for the first time at the age of 12, but didn’t like it. “A stage can be anywhere,” he says, “in a house, a marketplace, a public square, a train, a café, a church, a mosque or a prison. The only boundary is the imagination, and you have to be able to bring people into your world.”
Bringing people into his world is Theziri’s forte. When the doors of L’Ogresse shut behind his audience, another realm opens up in which the everyday meets the fantastic, and the listener is transformed – just like the Algerian boy in his story who spies the ogress naked in her house, with her huge breasts and hunched back. The boy is never the same again.
Upcoming events at this eclectic little theater include Theziri’s “shadow and objects” show at 9 p.m. on Saturday, June 23 (€5); a concert by Les Ongles Noirs on Friday, June 29 at 9 p.m.; and Shot House, a one-act play in English written by and starring the American playwright Quinton Cockrell on July 5, 6, 12, and 13, followed by live music (see www.est-paris.com for more information and reservations). L’Ogresse will also hold a benefit event on July 14 (Bastille Day), billed as a “soirée de soutien feu Art’ifice.”
L’Ogresse: 4, rue des Prairies, 75020 Paris. Métro: Gambetta or Porte de Bagnolet.
© 2007 Paris Update
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