On recent criticisms of Bolduc Bolduc’s Gargantua

 Critical reflections
By MEHITABLE GRIPING  |  November 20, 2013

THE JUNGIAN QUESTION Deepening inquiry into death masks. | Photo by Nicholas Gervin

The good of criticism, mused Baudelaire, is the “vast and terrible question mark that seizes the critic by the throat.” Which might explain why the usual critical suspects have been falling all over themselves to make sense — and thus, they no doubt hope, good — of writer-director-actor Bolduc Bolduc’s salmagundi of a new theater work, Gargantua.

Critics have by turns deconstructed, lauded, and censured Bolduc’s re-conception of Rabelais’s gluttonous giant Gargantua, who is, in this rendering, neither glutton nor (for most of the play) giant. They have praised and puzzled over Bolduc’s slender ingénue of a Gargantua (Patric Winters), born to Moldovan vintner Grandgousier (C. Chawson McInerney) and his wife Gargamelle (Elba Hasting-Smith). The show’s central conflicts — Moldova’s ruinous wine deficit, Gargantua’s induction into the army at age 13, and his great love for Attia (Jillian Tennenbaum), of Moldova’s rival nation Labrador — have been parsed for subversive petro-industrial and oeno-sexual subtexts.

Critics have reached for words like “mirrors,” “mimesis,” and “masturbation” while weighing in on Bolduc’s decision to write in a character for himself — a would-be thespian at that — and to even give him his own name. And reactions have been bemused and often uncharitable regarding Bolduc’s choice to stage his work in a fermentory. However, his production’s ad hoc staging (plywood, scrim, strobe light, harpist) has endeared it to the minimalists. Elsewhere, Jungians have questioned the show’s non-traditional death mask and its sock puppet, while Lacanians championed its mytho-erotic use, in both birth and death scenes, of balloons.

As for the ensemble, much has been made of its giddy physicality, as if one “kinetic organism”: drunken townspeople writhe as appendages of the same civic debauch; a flurry of crypto-Asian hand-chops is meted out by the Labradorian Army. One niche critic has obsessed over the Freudian imagery of Gargantua’s tongue, stuck out once as an expression of new love for Attia, and again, later, while poised to lick the boot of a xenophobic sergeant.

Textually, some note Gargantua’s moments of verbal beauty (“A train whistle solders the white sky to the earth,” a character intones as the battle-slain await transport to death), and find quaint Bolduc’s weakness for fourth-wall-busting : “I didn’t know there was a play here,” screeches an old lady in horror, upon spotting the audience. “There always is,” screeches the other. “The government subsidizes them.”

Perhaps it is poetic justice, then, that most critiques of Bolduc’s work have looked askance at the debts that Gargantua owes to The Foundation, which funded this production. Many have skewered Bolduc for allowing his work to be co-opted, not only by submitting it to the “rubric” of the notorious Learning Committee, but by going so far as to employ as actors the committee’s members (Greta Fasterbutton, Hasting-Smith, and McInerney, whose smarmy inanities and natty black outfits will be unforgettable to anyone who has ever endured an arts-funding review in this city).

Finally, however, few have failed to remark upon the bedlam loosed onstage by Bolduc the director — one glimpses confusion and blind panic in the eyes of his actors. As for Bolduc the actor, critics note, he himself is finally unable to perform his own creation: He sweats; he misses cues; he bleeds mysteriously from the mouth.

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