Du Vent dans les Branches de Sassafras
(The Wind in the Branches of the Sassafras Trees)

by Rene de Obaldia
Directed by Thomas Le Douarec
Theatre Ranelagh
5 rue de Vignes, Paris, 01 42 88 64 44
End of a Festival Obaldia, Sept. 9 to Nov. 19, 2011

Reviewed by Marie J. Kilker

A classic of the theater of the absurd, Obaldia's 1965 "chamber Western" The Wind in the Branches of the Sassafras was inspired by his reading a novel by James Fennimore Cooper. The sassafras seemed to Obaldia a typical American tree, strong-rooted, with leaves blood-red in autumn and smelling like root beer. (Indeed, that flavor comes from the sassafras.) Difficult to destroy, though conditions bad for soil often make the sassafras a shrub, its male and female species are separate. How appropriate a basis for the title of a comedy-drama about a  family of cowboys, whose Ol'Kentucky home is endangered by Indians! It's introduced in a song that's a cross between western and southern by a guitar-strummer in Stetson and jeans at the edge of the stage. He (droll Mehdi Borayou) moseys as the wide curtain parts into the Rockfellers' saloon (with bi-level family, cooking, dining room) and takes up residence within a partitioned-off side at a piano. On it he'll accompany songs or underscore acts and moods whenever he isn't on his elbows, bored, or playing solitaire.

But there aren't many boring moments after Caroline Rockfeller (a mix of strong and distressed as played by Isabelle Tanakil) sees in her crystal ball that Comanche Chief Oeil de Lynx (versatile terror Charles Clement who also assays the Indian Oeil de Perdrix and an extra cowhand) has raided nearby Pancho City and will menace the Rockfellers in their home. Under clan leader John-Emery Rockfeller (commanding Patrick Prejean, calm at being feisty), they must arm and barricade themselves against Indians who'll surround and attack. Director Thomas Le Douarec, with acknowledged assistance from Michele Bourdet and Philippe Maymat, makes sure the appearance (in a doorway battered by red storm and siege) of the chief and horny Indian, is as terrifying (to the extent burlesque can be) as his attempts at ravishing already pregnant yet not beyond stripping Myriam (buxom, nervy Michele Bourdet). Obaldia has not forgotten to bring in Mexicans (Marie Le Cam and Philippe Maymat), though probably rare in Kentucky at the time of the action, who add their stereotypical accents, song and dance to the entire comedy-ballet-western piece. Of course, wounds bring about and appearance of the comic Doctor Butler (Christian Mulot, fitting nicely into the traditions of both the Doc of westerns and the comic ones of commedia and Moliere), who's also called upon to deliver a baby. All add up to almost two hours of mayhem and mirth.

Varied lighting by Pascal Noel seems to either attack, pacify, or simply illuminate the characters and goings-on on Claude Plet's two-leveled set, mostly of wood (Sassafras?). It reminded me a lot of the classic but more peaceful saloon-with-stage designed for Florida Studio Theatre's recent run of  Cowgirls. The music, original but derivative, is by Mehdi Bourayou. Over-the-top costumes, including the hero's all white typical two-piecer with ten gallon hat and high boots, are credited to Argi Alvez for Le Mauvais Garcons (The Bad Guys). Typical of Obaldia's wild construction, Charles Clement as the red villain also in alternate scenes plays the white hero. Because the satire is so broad, a viewer with little or no knowledge of French will "get" what happens but of course not the full extent of how. That is a product of  Obaldia's wild language and delirious poetry. The difficulty of translating it may be a major reason the writer is less known in the Anglophone world than in many other countries and especially Francophone ones. Some translator of merit ought to be found and persuaded to provide accurate and ample access to Obaldia's works.

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