James Thierree has theater in his genes

PARIS – Our rendezvous had been arranged for 11.30 a.m. at L’Escalier cafe on Rue du Faubourg Saint Denis. It was not what I had expected. He was not what I had expected. The cafe was dark, with only a few tables outside. He arrived, looking slightly unkempt with thick graying hair and sandals but pleasant and friendly at the same time. He pointed to his wounded hand, a souvenir from his recent tour that had taken him to Austria, as something which was to be expected and habitual. We ordered coffee and the sun was shining. Thirty-five-year-old James Thierree bears a striking resemblance to his grandfather, Charlie Chaplin. As the conversation progressed, he reminded me more and more of the star of the silent movies through his expressions, his movement – everything really. Thierree wondered humorously if it could it be the DNA. Chaplin died when his grandson was only 3. In all the stories and reviews written about Thierree’s performances – all of them praising his work – references to his legendary grandfather have been unavoidable. Is that something that bothers him? «No, in the sense that the moment the lights go on onstage, it’s just me and the audience. I have obviously been influenced by my grandfather, subconsciously. Possibly in the way I move. It’s all there for the audience to see and its provenance is not of my concern. I work, I explore my theatrical language, I don’t think it resembles my grandfather’s but I cannot deny my roots,» he said. Thierree’s celebrated family tree has many branches, starting with his great-grandfather, Irish-American playwright Eugene O’Neill. «Now that’s something which is very far away. Something very dark and very different. If I had to compare it all through colors, I would pick black for O’Neill and a vivid red for Chaplin.» What about for himself? «Violet, perhaps,» he responded, before adding, «What do you think?» His parents, Jean-Baptiste Thierree and Victoria Chaplin are the founders of the «Invisible Circus,» which was part of last year’s Greek Festival. Based on constant transformation, it is a complex, beautiful performance, featuring the couple acting as magicians and acrobats on stage. This week, Thierree has been presenting «Raoul» at the Rex Theater in Athens. The performances, part of this year’s Greek Festival, continue tonight, Friday and Saturday. A solitary man, Raoul is barricaded in his own world until the day the wall comes down and he is no longer protected. He has to react and adjust to his new living conditions. «Raoul seems to be alone on stage but he is not. He is accompanied by various visible and invisible creatures, along with the stage props and the music. He has five visitors, who are not human beings: the sea, the earth, a fish, a jellyfish and the skeleton of a bird. Some are threatening, while others are just passing through,» said Thierree. «Raoul is one person, two people, he is all of us. At one point, he places a mirror in front of the audience. Who is the Other? I invented an extra Raoul, who liberates Raoul from himself. The greatest danger facing man is man himself.» Thierree is also behind the production’s stage props. «I never use state-of-the-art technology, but theater’s old tools. Everything is handled manually, because for me that’s what theater is all about. It’s not [the film] ‘Avatar.’ For so many centuries, when we talk about theater, we mean a box where people share the same space and words,» said Thierree. He has, however, composed a one-and-a-half-man show with no words. «It’s very difficult to add words when you’re moving within sounds, symbols and transpositions. Because that would destroy the transposition and the mystery, something like a deadly virus. I use body language and movement. If Raoul could talk and explain exactly what he was going through, it would be a show for children. Given the absence of text, the audience is free to imagine, to follow a war against the Other or in the Other’s defense. What I wish to bring to the surface are people’s obsessions, desires and ghosts.» Why did he choose this creative path? «I don’t know if I chose it. I am the result, the crossroads of various influences balancing between dance, mime and body expression,» he said. «After all, I started appearing in my parents’ performances at a very young age.» He held his swollen hand. In his productions he dances,- flies almost – and transforms himself. Isn’t he afraid of hurting himself? «No, I’m not afraid during the show; maybe a little bit before or a little bit after,» he said laughing. Does he have to train nonstop to keep his body in shape? «It’s amusing, but I’m often asked the same thing. The truth is that the entire performance is exercise. My physical participation is so great that the rest of the day is spent resting and regaining my strength – sleep, massages and far niente.» «Raoul» is Thierree’s fourth production in 11 years, though he prefers the term «journey.» «I grew up traveling and as a result I feel the need to be in constant motion,» he said. «I live in Paris but I can’t spend too much time in one place.» This is probably why Roma director Tony Gatlif cast him in his most recent film, «Liberte.» «I play a free man who communicates with nature, a sensual and sensitive human being, a man-child. I don’t know if I myself am a man-child, I would like, however, to maintain the innocence and feeling of the newcomer. The sense of starting over every single time. This way, I have nothing to lose.» The terms «crisis» and «Greek problems» had been kept out of the conversation for a while, though it did seem unnatural and artificial. Thierree was honest and thorough in his answers. No, the current crisis has not affected him personally but that is not to say that he is not worried about it. «My feeling is that we are in a hole but we have yet to discover how deep it is. That is why we have to be careful, modest and humble,» he said. «As far as I’m concerned, the only thing I can do is help people to free their emotions for a little bit, offer them something more than pure entertainment. The crisis may enable us to take another look at something and turn it into something else. This is a crisis of humanity, not of the capitalist system. The entire body is in pain, not just the head or the feet.» Greek Festival, 39 Panepistimiou box office, tel 210.327.2000. For more information, log onto