After years of being performed around the world, Seuls, the riveting solo performance written, directed, and performed by Wajdi Mouawad, makes its U.S. premiere in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. The semi-autobiographical piece follows Mouawad’s constructed self – a grad student working on his thesis examining the solo performances of Robert Lepage – as he struggles to find his own identity.
His struggling family relationships and his lifetime of moving around the world only add to his struggle, and leaves him racking his brain for any sort of conclusion.
It’s only fitting that a show so concerned with transplantation should take up such a brief residence at the Kennedy Center, which always maintains the admirable if imperfect mission of hosting voices from around the world. That track record continues, if only for two nights, with Seuls, which opens the Center’s World Stages series. The French-language performance is presented with English subtitles that – while functional – have trouble keeping up with the flow of language and clearly leave a lot lost in translation.
But – as frustrating as it can be to crane one’s neck to keep up with struggling subtitles – a sense of miscommunication is actually instrumental in Seuls’ impact. The piece is not focused on action, but the moments between action. It deals primarily in missed connections and isolation, and the toil that both of those take on one’s psyche. Mouawad is the first to admit that he can be wordy (his semi-autobiographical protagonist is almost done with his thesis at 1500 pages), but Seuls communicates the most when it is not grounded in words.
September 18 and 19, 2015
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
Tickets: $39 – $60
If not words, what is Seuls grounded in? That’s a good question that changes minute to minute. The performance wears many different hats in its two hours, and its ability to transform itself seamlessly creates a sense of “how did we get here?” Expressionism, naturalism, movement, and monologue all ebb and flow to tell a story that exists hazily in psychological time. It floats through the recesses of mind and memory to find truth between the lines of identity. “Who are we? Who do we think we are?” Those are the questions that bookend Seuls, and the answers – like everything else – are lost in translation.
There’s a tragedy in that, but there’s also a beauty. Seuls gets away with its ambiguity because it recognizes that answers tell us far less than perfectly worded questions. Which is good, because questions are certainly what any audience will be left with after the curtain drops. Seuls raises too many questions to count, which range from eye opening to head scratching. Without giving too much away, there is a lot more to Seuls than initially meets the eye, and that realization can be jarring. By the end of the performance, it can be hard to make heads or tails of anything, but again, a feeling of discomfort is not necessarily a bad thing. Seuls never aims to satisfy; its mission might very well be the opposite.
In this and so many ways Seuls defies judgment. It is so unique in its method and so confident in its execution that it asks not for opinion, but rather for a truly visceral response. That surety is what makes Seuls something special, a performance that feels like lightning in a bottle. It is shocking and moving and tragically ephemeral. But it is also exhausting, content in taking the audience’s breath away and never giving it back. It is a fine cuisine that is novel and delicious, but difficult to digest.