Au revoir, Theatre de la Jeune Lune

Approximately 20 minutes ago, on a breezy, beautiful Sunday morning not unlike those we imagine the south of France to be blessed with almost daily, the Theatre de la Jeune Lune issued a press release disclosing that the Minneapolis company’s board of directors had voted this week “to list the theatre’s headquarters for sale and to shut down the arts group as currently organized.”

For the troupe that more than any other had defined the inventiveness of the Twin Cities theater scene in its 30 years of
highly original, physical performances, an accumulation of financial and artistic shortcomings had thrown the troupe off its equilibrium. That the theatre had always been a little off-balance had been part of the excitement–they worked the stage’s edges, stretching the imagination and the bank account. And if they fussed more over the art than the endowment that never quite got off the ground, audiences were the better for it. Who knows what we will have missed because of the theater’s shuttering this week, but those who appreciated their circus-like trapeze act between high-brow and low-brow, classical and original art will never forget what they’ve already seen.

That the troupe which congealed around two Frenchmen and two Americans studying theatre in Paris should have come to this–its founders exhausted by their art and each other and the fickleness of their local audience after giving these everything they had for decades–is something they themselves might have wistfully worked into a play. They would play this dissolution with the bittersweetness which they struck like no other troupe in town, the intersection between their European and American sensibilities, between artists and showmen. The Guthrie Theater, for all its talent, could never suppress its superiority complex to sustain such a note, and smaller theaters have often been too obsessed with asserting their own idiosyncrasies to bother with pathos. And certainly the Jeune Lune’s own hubris may be implicated in its demise. But as the curtain closed on its final act, we are left to mourn the fact that few artists, here or anywhere, have the skill, the stamina, and the fearlessness to invent and sustain what they did together for so well and so long. In a famous Keaton gag, the silent comedian is spared when a house wall falls around him because he happens to be standing right where the hole for a window is. For years, Jeune Lune survived this way. But eventually, their luck ran out.

In their final show (the press release, it should be noted, allows for an eventual reincarnation of the troupe in a different form), called Fishtank, they resurrected much of what had distinguished them: the self-effacing humor, the sleight-of-hand, the poetry of theatrical imagination that left you somewhere between huh! and ha! But there was also a sense of diminished expectations; it was a meditation, clearly created through improvisation, not a manifesto. And though it was remarkable, it was not going to be the stuff that would sustain them or their audiences forever. Somewhere between their careening, career-defining Yang Zen Froggs and their galvanizing Hamlet of a few years back, they can peaked, literally conquering the heights of both drama and comedy. And, like their obvious antecedents of Chaplin and Keaton and Jacques Tati, they may not soon dance across our imaginations again.