The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Münchhausen

November 23, 2009By Pierre TranWithout Category
The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Münchhausen, Paris

Baron Münchausen meets Vulcan. Photo: Philipe Mayeur

There is something in us that craves the fantastic, the fabulous, the fascinating flight of imagination that comes from hearing a tall tale well told. That is the appetite …

The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Münchhausen, Paris

Baron Münchausen meets Vulcan. Photo: Philipe Mayeur

There is something in us that craves the fantastic, the fabulous, the fascinating flight of imagination that comes from hearing a tall tale well told. That is the appetite the Lille-based Joker theater company is trying to feed with Les Aventures Extraordinaires du Baron de Münchhausen, a highly physical, rhythmic musical staging of four episodes of escape from the ordinary as told (in French) by the eponymous master raconteur of weird tales.

In this production, Baron M tells about his deadly wager with the Turkish sultan that he can have a superior bottle of Tokay wine brought from the cellars of the Austrian emperor within an hour; about how he (the baron) climbs to the moon and has a row with the Queen of the Moon; about how he drops to earth, meets Vulcan and falls hopelessly in love with Venus, who is inconveniently married to the hammer-wielding Roman god; and finally, about how he is taken inside the belly of a whale during a storm at sea.

A great deal of thought has gone into the staging, with the cast skillfully manipulating a wooden cart, which serves as the base for many different things when transformed by the props, including the Ottoman court, the moon, a ship at sea and a whale, helping the storyteller spin his yarns and reminding us that nothing is really as it seems.

The Joker company’s production underscores the most important elements of French humor, offering plenty of movement, sight gags and situation humor – the broad stuff of vaudeville.

But this is an adventure story, and the audience, mostly made up of young children, laughed as the story unfolded. On the way out, one mother told us that her younger children had enjoyed the spectacle more than the older ones and were not frightened by it.

This version is based on the stories written by Gottfried Bürger and Rudolph Erich Raspe, who embroidered on the tall tales told by the real-life Baron Münchhausen. Producer Hacid Bouabaya and the cast display a sure touch in seeking to close the space between the stage and rows of seats. They speak directly to the audience, the starstruck characters gazing out at us, and Baron M addresses the public, his public, willing us to believe that what he narrates and what is acted out before our eyes is “the truth.” People feel the need to invent. He wants and needs to persuade us that what is blatantly untrue and made up is the real thing, tapping into our deeply ingrained need to believe (“You can trust me with your money,” says Bernie Madoff, and we hand it over; “There are weapons of mass destruction,” say the leaders of certain countries, and we send soldiers to fight in Iraq).

Baron M gave me the chance to visit the delightful Cartoucherie theater complex in the Bois de Vincennes. There was something magical – and theatrical – about the walk past young riders on cantering horses and through the trees to the theater festooned with ropes of light. Baron M would have been able to weave a tale of wonder out of it before you could say Jack Robinson.

Pierre Tran

Théâtre de l’Epée de Bois: Cartoucherie, 75012 Paris. Métro: Château de Vincennes, then 112, Cartoucherie stop. Tel.: 01 48 08 39 74. Through December 20. www.epeedebois.com

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