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STAGE REVIEW : Le Theatre de Banlieue Throws Reality for Loop

Off stage, a woman sings fervently. It could be a revolutionary ballad. Then, the sound of stomping feet and a man’s agitated voice. The singing eventually stops. It could be an army clampdown.

But when a huge root vegetable attached to a long pipe held by a cloaked figure probes its way on the Wallenboyd stage, any attempt at transferring theater symbols to reality is thrown for a loop.

Le Theatre de Banlieue’s “Aqui No Se Rinde” has begun, aiming to disturb the audience’s comfortable distance from the events it came to watch.

The Spanish title roughly translates as “Here, No Surrender!,” something members of the Belgian performing troupe heard in their travels to Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Mexico. It’s a call of revolt, like Nicaragua’s “No Pasaran (They Shall Not Pass),” but in the hands of creator-performers Alain Mebirouk and Isabelle Lemouline, it’s also a call-to-arms against theater conventions. Jean-Luc Godard’s famous comment on his films--"They do have a beginning, middle and end, but not necessarily in that order"--applies to Mebirouk and Lemouline’s work as well.

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The piece is the result of the company’s Latin American visit. Instead of taking photographs, they seem to have taken their mental images as visitors and put them on stage. An example is the seating arrangement, which lines all sides of the stage. It’s very much a bullring, with the two actors (especially in animal guises) facing off.

One difference: A bullring has a wall on the sidelines, while Mebirouk and Lemouline often move right into the audience, compelling them to take part in the action.

The action itself fits the cyclical pattern of an ancient Meso-american tale more than the abstract narratives of performance art, which appear traditional by comparison. The same bird/creature that entered at the start exits at the end. The couple’s stage movements are usually in a circle, each covering the other’s tracks. Repeated motifs of goose-stepping marchers, crippled and limbless waifs and fierce sexual encounters flow in and out of each other, like glyphs on a Mayan temple wall.

Mebirouk and Lemouline want to deliver their messages physically, so what spoken words there are (mostly in French) matter little next to the emotional range of their voices (they mimic everything from bird chirps to exploding ammo) and ultra-limber bodies.

It’s obvious why Le Theatre de Banlieue considers Jerzy Grotowski a central influence.

They are actors in absolute control of their resources, so much so that when various props fall a certain way, they fall for maximum dramatic effect. When a large wooden ring, meant to be an ankle lock, fell off Lemouline’s right foot, it rolled just enough to knock over a standing pipe. The columns of a government palace collapsing? Or a happy, mid-performance accident? Either way, it was pure theater.

Since this is our first exposure to Le Theatre de Banlieue, it can’t be said that “Aqui No Se Rinde” is a direct descendant of their previous works done in the United States, “Eclaboussures (Splashes),” “Le Livre: Le Desert” and “No Place to Die.” The deepest echoes here come from the surrealism of Latin American novels, the forgotten, half-living, half-dead beings in Luis Bunuel’s cinema and the comic horror of Latin machismo gone mad, which even apathetic non-Latin Americans can no longer ignore. “Aqui No Se Rinde” shows wearied souls in a battle-scarred landscape, both very ancient and very immediate.

Performances are at 301 Boyd St., downtown, Friday through Sunday, 8 p.m. Ends Sunday. Tickets: $10; (213) 629-2205.

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