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Chéri

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Chéri
Alessandra Ferri and Herman Cornejo
Photo by Joan Marcus.
That love in all its forms is something worth dancing about is a fact that proves equally joyous and tragic in Chéri. Martha Clarke’s arresting new dance-theatre piece at the Pershing Square Signature Center runs scarcely more than an hour, but in its limited time describes, depicts, and deconstructs every imaginable component of romantic affection — all without ever resorting to either cynicism or unchecked sentimentality. Real feelings and real fears are given such searing form that you may long to escape them — but, as the characters experiencing it first-hand learn the hard way, escaping from your own out-of-control heart is fundamentally impossible.

And in Chéri, no hearts are in control. The title character (played by Herman Cornejo) is a lusty young man of 24; his beloved, Lea (Alessandra Ferri), is his mother’s 49-year-old friend and as in need of a reaffirmation of life as her paramour is evidence of what true maturity means and can do. Their fling begins only occasional, powerful and passionate in isolated instances, but grows to consume their souls. It’s interrupted, at first by Chéri’s (largely arranged) marriage to a much younger woman and later World War I — after which, needless to say, lined faces, disapproving glances, and the oppression of only casual consummation accelerate the approach to critical mass.

Though the Playbill insists that the show is based on Colette’s 1920 novel of the same title and its 1926 sequel, it’s perhaps more accurate to say it was “inspired by” the written works. Plot is conveyed only in snips of narration from Chéri’s mother, Charlotte (Amy Irving), who stalks the shadowy middle ground between her son and friend trying to comprehend how they came together and, eventually, what drives them apart. Charlotte’s words, cobbled into four wispy if impactful monologues by playwright Tina Howe, serve only to link and provide bare explanation to the unspoken scenes (accompanied on the piano by Sarah Rothenberg, playing excerpts of Ravel, Debussy, Mompou, Poulenc, Wagner, and Feldman with thundering ferocity).

In them, telling the only story that matters, Cornejo and Ferri convey the unbridled libidinous urges that unite and unify the lovers, the deflation of separation, and the anguish of realizing when things are well and truly over. Although there’s not a ton of dancing, all told, each movement that does occur lands with maximum force. On the chillingly rare moments Chéri and Lea move together, they’re fully fused, spinning, leaping, and lunging as one. Yet even in these instances, you sense the barren boundaries between them, as though they’re on some level aware that what they have cannot — or should not — be maintained, and that further energizes everything else.

More captivating still are their “solos,” which derive almost exclusively from the maddening necessity of being away from the other. Ferri gets two of these, as Lea essentially “loses” Chéri twice, and presents with heartbreaking clarity the older woman’s descent into nothingness, progressing through the rejection and denial of grief before finally arriving at the terrifying acceptance of it. Cornejo, in the work’s climax, communicates a collision of complex emotions with utter clarity, defining all the borders of a man who longs to give in to his urges but, thanks to a variety of circumstances, has lost the ability to genuinely recognize them when they occur — and this all resolves in a startling coup de théâtre that propels you into the depths of despair as little else frequently manages.

Clarke has not wasted or misused a single second or inch of stage space; even the walls of the set, by David Zinn (who also designed the costumes), appear to be thrusting away from reality just as the two lovers are, and Christopher Akerlind’s lights masterfully reveal and obscure things the pair would undoubtedly prefer hidden or exposed. Clarke’s direction is so precise, in fact, that it pierces even through the only elements that don’t fully satisfy: the speeches. Though they anchor us in the delicacy and whimsy of the era, and Irving delivers them with an unquestionable conviction, they exist as if perpendicular to the dances, wanting to be a part of that universe but lacking the fundamental tools necessary to become so.

Neither Clarke nor her dancers need the help. Their evocation of love, loss, and everything in between is so total that you intimately understand their every nuance — no additional words required. If you, like they, sometimes feel trapped, maybe that’s how it should be? Even when the outcome is less than ideal, or even less than good, Chéri tells us, the ecstasy more often than not is worth the agony.


Chéri
Through December 29
Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Current Performance Schedule at www.signaturetheatre.org