PARIS — In March last year, Pauline Bayle’s “Lost Illusions” closed after just two performances, the day before France’s first coronavirus lockdown came into force. Eighteen months later, the Théâtre de la Bastille was chock-full once more for the production’s return to the stage — and the mood in Paris appeared to have finally lifted.
Sure, proof of full vaccination or a recent negative test is required at the door, and masks remain mandatory in theaters. But the fear of shutdowns has receded along with the infection rate in the country, now that 75 percent of the population has received at least one dose of vaccine. Nearly all the country’s playhouses have reopened, with hopes now high for a “normal” season.
And the directors setting the tone with ambitious premieres this September have all been millennial women. Like Bayle, Pauline Bureau, currently at the Théâtre de la Colline with “Surrogate” (“Pour Autrui”), and Maëlle Poésy, who just made her debut at the Comédie-Française, were on the cusp of national prominence when the pandemic hit.
It is a relief to see them back. For emerging artists, the risk of running down funding or losing key opportunities has been especially acute over the past 18 months. The odds for women are arguably even tougher: Earlier this year, a World Economic Forum report suggested that the pandemic would delay gender equality by a generation. In France, an open letter published in the newspaper Libération last March pointed out the continued dearth of female leaders in the country’s arts world.
The talent is there to change the narrative, and these millennial directors are maturing. While Bayle, Bureau and Poésy are far from alike, they all shun the highly conceptual approach that is often confused in France for a strong directorial voice. Instead, “Lost Illusions,” “Surrogate” and Poésy’s “7 Minutes” are all examples of confident, clear storytelling, complete with a few twists.
“Lost Illusions” is in many ways a follow-up to Bayle’s Homer-inspired “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” two shows that toured widely in France from 2017 to 2020. Once again, Bayle has adapted an epic, character-heavy tale — Honoré de Balzac’s novel of the same name, published in installments between 1837 and 1843 — with just five actors on a bare stage. Four of them play multiple characters, men and women; the fifth, Jenna Thiam, takes the gender-swapped role of Lucien, an ambitious young writer from Angoulême who strives to make it in Parisian society.
Significant cuts have been required to keep “Lost Illusions” under the two-and-a-half-hour mark. Still, Bayle and her cast manage to clearly delineate no fewer than 17 characters, sometimes with seconds to change costumes and transition from one to the next.
While Bayle relies on the audience’s imagination to fill in some gaps, Bureau’s instincts are closer to documentary theater. In 2019, she tackled the legalization of abortion in France in the 1970s for the Comédie-Française, in a play that drew on real-life events; “Surrogate,” at La Colline, returns to the theme of women’s reproductive rights through fiction.
While legal in many countries and in some U.S. states, surrogacy remains forbidden by French law, regardless of the parents’ circumstances. “Surrogate,” which Bureau wrote and directed, openly acts as an advocate for change by telling the story of a heterosexual couple who can’t conceive after the prospective mother was treated for cancer.
It’s a tricky proposition for a play, because creating characters in service of a clear cause can leave them feeling one-dimensional. When we meet Liz (Marie Nicolle), a construction manager, and Alexandre (Nicolas Chupin), a puppeteer, it soon becomes obvious — if only because of the play’s title — that they will fall in love and struggle to have a child. Yet in a neat, fast-paced series of vignettes, Bureau manages to introduce them both and stage a believable meet-cute at an airport. Their budding love story is told through intimate text messages flashed over the elaborate two-tier set.
Some shortcuts are more frustrating. After Liz undergoes a hysterectomy, the play nudges them quickly toward surrogacy. Liz’s sister just happens to work at an American maternity hospital, and to have a colleague who dreams of becoming a surrogate. The staggering cost — over $100,000 — is mentioned only in passing, along with the vague prospect of a loan.
Yet Bureau is brilliantly imaginative when it comes to revealing character in small, concise touches. As the American surrogate Rose, who seems too perfect on paper, she cast Maria Mc Clurg, a trained dancer who luxuriates in languid, expansive steps while heavily pregnant, as Liz watches, still — an eloquent metaphor for the relish Rose says she experiences when carrying a child, as well as Liz’s frustration with her own body.
As Liz’s mother, Martine Chevallier is another highlight, insensitively deadpan, even as her daughter struggles. The only major mishap in “Surrogate” is the final scene, which sees Liz and Alexandre’s daughter appear as a teenager. Her studied weirdness, as well as repeated allusions to her high intellectual potential, undermine the rest of the play: Wouldn’t an average child be a gift, too, after infertility?
Notably, both Bayle and Bureau benefited from commissions from the venerable Comédie-Française in 2019. Under its current director, Éric Ruf, the storied company has implemented a roughly equal split between female and male directors every season. This year, the two productions that opened the season were staged by women.
After directing a Chekhov double bill for the troupe in 2016, Poésy returned with “7 Minutes,” a play by the Italian author Stefano Massini. It is set in a French textile factory, whose workers fear for their jobs after a change of ownership. Instead, the new management makes them a surprising offer: Eleven women elected to represent their peers are asked to voluntarily give up seven minutes out of the workforce’s daily 15-minute breaks.
“7 Minutes” works like a courtroom drama. The characters have 80 minutes to decide whether or not to accept the proposal, and never leave the stage. While it initially seems like a no-brainer — seven minutes, they reason, is nothing compared with layoffs in a declining sector — one dissenting voice, that of Véronique Vella, raises the possibility that it is the first step in a rollback of hard-earned rights. As blue-collar jobs disappear, she asks with understated defiance, should those who remain accept worse working conditions just to remain employed?
The play makes a superb addition to the Comédie-Française repertoire, which isn’t exactly replete with working-class stories, and brings every generation of the company together, from the company’s doyenne, Claude Mathieu, to Ruf’s latest hire, Séphora Pondi, 29.
And there are already new names in the wings. “Hansel and Gretel,” a family-friendly production on the Comédie-Française’s smallest stage, the Studio-Théâtre, introduces Rose Martine, a 27-year-old director born in Haiti and raised in the overseas department of French Guiana.
“Hansel and Gretel” lacks a little finesse in the acting choices, yet it’s a joy to see Martine bring elements of Black culture to the Comédie-Française stage, including call-and-response interactions with the audience borrowed from Haitian folk tales. Hansel, Gretel and the narrator are all played by young Black members of the company, with Birane Ba especially convincing as Hansel. Postpandemic, the future looks bright.
Lost Illusions. Directed by Pauline Bayle. Théâtre de la Bastille, through Oct. 16.
Surrogate. Directed by Pauline Bureau. Théâtre de la Colline, through Oct. 17.
7 Minutes. Directed by Maëlle Poésy. Comédie-Française, through Oct. 17.
Hansel & Gretel. Directed by Rose Martine. Comédie-Française, through Oct. 24.