The same gay character who is bullied in one play is nearly murdered in another play in a theater some two miles away. In an unusual collaboration, two Brooklyn theaters are simultaneously presenting stage adaptations of two autobiographical novels by 27-year-old French writer Édouard Louis. Both officially open tonight – not a coincidence – and have much in common, including innovative stagecraft with a heavy reliance on videos. But they differ markedly in tone — one’s more playful and hopeful, the other more intense and dispiriting – and in any case they are separate shows with separate admissions, and so I review them separately below.
The End of Eddy at Brooklyn Academy of Music
As they bounce onto the stage, two young actors dressed in identical striped shirts and bright white sneakers tell us that the play we’re about to see is based on a book of the same name by the French writer Édouard Louis, that it was published when he was 21 years old and that it focuses on the life of one Eddy Bellegueule between the ages 10 and 15, growing up in a small, grim rural village in the North of France. It was a bestseller in France, they continue, it has been translated into more than 25 languages, “and everywhere it’s been praised for its open and honest discussion of poverty and violence, and sex and homosexuality.”
Clearly, parts of “The End of Eddy” resemble a book report for school. Over the 90 minutes of the show, they even read or recite passages directly from the book. This reflects the initial audience for this adaptation by Pamela Carter. It was presented at a children’s theater in the UK — which explains why “we’ve had to leave a lot out.”
But for all the self-consciously childlike tone in the storytelling, “The End of Eddy,”which is having a brief run through November 21 as part of BAM’s Next Wave Festival, cannot be dismissed as a simple story hour for children.
This is for two reasons.
One is because of the inventive stagecraft. The two performers (Oseloka Obi and James Russell Morley) are not just narrators, talking straightforwardly to the audience. They also portray Eddy, sometimes separately, sometimes simultaneously – and often in pre-recorded videos, on four video monitors lined up behind them. The videos often also offer texts as well, in what feel at times as if lifted from “Sesame Street.”
(Why four videos? At one point, the Eddys explain: “There were four televisions in my house….My father used to find them at the rubbish tip, and bring them home and repair them.”)
The two actors, who are ultimately as persuasive as they are energetic and charming, also portray Eddy’s mother and father, siblings, friends, people in the village and, most memorably, two bullies – all of whom interact on screen with the live actors on stage.
The main reason “The End of Eddy” is an effective work of theater is the rawness of the stories — his harrowing accounts of the relentless bullying, the deadened people in the dying factory town, his sad and funny efforts to “be a man,” his sexual experimenting. If it’s toned down from the novel, “The End of Eddy” is blunt enough so that the theater only recommends it for ages 16 and over.
It’s no spoiler to point out that “The End of Eddie” ends with the end of Eddy, because the two storytellers tell us that in the very beginning. But if that sounded ominous at the outset, “The End of Eddy” ends hopeful and warmhearted, with Eddy Bellegueule at age 15 getting a scholarship to study theater far away from his hometown tormentors. It’s the end of Eddy because Eddy Bellegueule changes his name to Édouard Louis.
“In an interview,” our two narrators tell us near the end, “Édouard said the reason he changed his name was not because he wanted to kill off Eddy but because ‘Eddy’ represented his father’s idea of masculinity. Eddy was the name of a man he could never succeed in becoming.”
History of Violence at St. Ann’s Warehouse
“History of Violence” begins with a crime scene.
Three people wearing the disposable white suits that peg them as forensic technicians dust for fingerprints, as we can see close up in a live video projected onto the back wall.
It will take quite a while into this intense two hour play (with no intermission) before we find out precisely what happened, the story parceled out the way it might be in a mystery or a police procedural. But “History of Violence” doesn’t fit those genres; it’s autobiographical: The crime reportedly happened to Édouard Louis for real in 2012. He seems to have intended an examination of trauma; that in any case is the most consistently insightful aspect of the adaptation. The traumatic impact on the victim is evident from the first glimpse of the disconsolate blond man in a pink shirt sitting upstage (portrayed by Laurenz Laufenberg.) We’ll call the character Édouard, although he’s not named in the play. At the start, while the crime investigators do their work, Edouard moves to the lip of the stage and talks into a microphone (The play is in German, with English captions projected onto the back.)
“In a week you’ll think, it’s been a whole week since it happened; in a year: it’s been a whole year.” Edouard narrates how in the immediate aftermath he did the laundry, burned incense, used air freshener, scrubbed the door knob, poured bleach into the sink, squirted saline solution into his nostrils, did everything and anything he could think of to get rid of the smell, the presence, of his assailant. But nothing worked.
There are other characters, and other actions, but they all in different ways revolve around Édouard and the incident. He visits his hometown, staying with his sister (Alina Stiegler), where he’s reminded why he left; he overhears his sister telling her husband about the crime. Édouard is also interviewed by the police, who are casually racist, assuming the assailant was Arab. These scenes weave in and out of the moment-by-moment direct encounter with the man who became his assailant, which is re-enacted in bits and piece — arguably the way an individual reconstructs the memory of a trauma, out of order, unbidden. Eventually, the full story emerges. On Christmas Eve, a man who says his name is Reda (Renato Schuch) flirts with Edouard on the street, convinces him to invite him into his home. Reda tells a long story about the arduous journey his father took from Algeria to France. Then the two have sex repeatedly; they fall asleep in one another’s arms. When they both wake up, Edouard goes to take a shower. When he comes back, he notices that Reda has stolen his iPad and his smart phone. He politely asks for them back. Reda becomes enraged, takes out a gun…and rapes Édouard.
This is reenacted in such explicit and extended detail that three different members of the audience rushed out across the stage to exit as if in urgent need of the restroom.
I didn’t need to rush out. But, I left the play feeling as if there must be something missing in the translation from page to stage (not to mention the translation from French to German to English subtitles.) “History of Violence” offers committed performances by the four-member cast, aided by meticulous stagecraft involving artistic projections and a live drummer dramatically underscoring the action. And somewhere along the way there is a suggestion that Reda’s explosion was motivated by self-hate and shame. But the production ultimately felt more like an exercise in stagecraft rather than a pointed exploration of history or violence.
The End of Eddy
Untitled Projects/Unicorn Theatre (UK)
Based on the book En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule by Édouard Louis
Adapted by Pamela Carter
Directed by Stewart Laing
Set and costume design by Hyemi Shin
Video design by Finn Ross
Lighting design by Zerlina Hughes Sound design by Josh Anio Grigg
Cast: Oseloka Obi and James Russell Morley
BAM Fisher (Fishman Space) 321 Ashland Pl Nov 19–21 at 7:30pm Tickets: $25 (recommended for ages 16+)
History of Violence
Adapted from the novel by Édouard Louis and directed by Thomas Ostermeier
Dramaturgy by Florian Borchmeyer, set and costume design by Nina Wetzel, lighting design by Michael Wetzel, music composed by Nils Ostendorf, video designed by ,Sebastien Dupouey, choreographd by Johanna Lemke
Cast: Christoph Gawenda, Laurenz Laufenberg, Renato Schuch,andAlina Stiegler,and drummer Thomas Witte.
Running time: 2 hours with no intermission
Tickets: $46 to $71
“History of Violence” is on stage at St. Ann’s Warehouse through Dec. 1
Due to depictions of nudity and sexual situations, History of Violence is recommended for ages 17+.