Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Seuls
Wilma Theater
Review by Cameron Kelsall


Wajdi Mouawad
Photo by Thibaut Baron
It's hard for me to write a review of Wajdi Mouawad's pedantic and pretentious Seuls, which has been produced around the world and is currently performing a two-week engagement at The Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, because as a play, it feels so profoundly anti-theatrical. It doesn't work as narrative theater, as performance art, as an aesthetic statement, or even as an homage to the great Canadian director Robert Lepage, whom Mouawad reveres and who plays a role in the story. Seuls is merely two excruciating hours of masturbation; and, like masturbation, only one person gets any pleasure out of the activity.

The first hour of Seuls—which is written, directed, and performed by Mouawad—is a skull-numbing examination of a Lebanese-Canadian academic's attempt to complete a doctoral thesis on Lepage's solo works. The scholar, named Harwan, is given the opportunity to travel to Russia and observe Lepage in rehearsals for this latest piece, but on the eve of departure, his father suffers a stroke. It's clear that the two men have a difficult relationship; the father, we learn, was an influential businessman in Beirut before the war, and resented that his role as paterfamilias forced him to leave the country to ensure his children's safety. All of this is expanded upon in a seemingly endless bedside monologue that Harwan delivers in a blank style uncolored by any sort of filial emotion, positive or negative.

The second hour is composed of an attempted coup de thêâtre so ridiculous it verges on the parodic, but which is made even more unbearable by the utter sincerity with which Mouawad performs it. Mouawad—who spends a good deal of the performance in nothing but a pair of black boxer briefs, for no explicable reason—covers himself and the stage in various paints, wordlessly writhing to an underscoring of techno-classical music. If you see the play (but don't), you can probably use your intelligence to glean what Mouawad is trying to represent through this artist's tantrum. But all I could think of in the moment was how sorry I felt for the crew who would have to clean up this emesis before the next performance.

As Harwan, Mouawad spends most of the play struggling to find a conclusion to his thesis. As a writer, he has created a work without one. Seuls is neither grounded by any tenable point of view, nor easily explained as a work of absurdism. It's just bad. It wastes our time. It tries our patience. It pretends towards high-mindedness, but amounts to little more than an artistic tantrum. Mouawad was recently named Artistic Director of Paris's Théâtre national de la Colline, a prestigious appointment in the world of French theatre. If he represents the vanguard of avant-garde theater nowadays, then his black boxer briefs are truly the emperor's new clothes.

Seuls continues through Sunday, December 11, 2016, at The Wilma Theater (265 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia). Tickets ($15-35) can be purchased online at www.wilmatheater.org, by phone (215-546-7824), or in person at the box office.


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