KPBS AIRDATE: June 25, 1992
The puns, like the bowling pins being juggled, fly fast and furious. “Le Petomane” is billed as “a comedy of airs,” and it has to do with Joseph Pujol, a baker cum cabaret performer in turn-of-the-century Paris , who earned fame, fortune and, now, a measure of immortality, by creative wind-passing. Born with an anatomical anomaly, Pujol turned ill winds to his advantage. His anal sphincter muscles, exquisitely trained, allowed him to do airy impressions of notable people and firing artillery; his aspiratory anus played musical instruments, and blew out candles from a foot away. He wowed them at the Moulin Rouge. You could call him the Grand-Farter of La Belle Époque.
Okay, that seems like story enough. But the Flying Karamazov Brothers felt that they had to weave this into an even more complex, long-winded tale. We have the son of Pujol at 101, looking back on dear old dad. Same son, Louis, at 62, and as a young boy. Pujol trying vainly to land a job in the Paris cabarets, surrounded by other weird auditioning acts. Films a` la mode of fin‑de-siècle France . Louis at 101 verbally and physically attacking Louis at 62. The German occupation. The American liberation. Political commentary on the lost creativity and divine decadence of the day.
Whew! There’s enough indigestible mishmash here to make anyone pass gas. It’s all in good fun, but it’s not all that funny. And opening night, it wasn’t all that well timed. These juggling New Vaudevillians need precision pacing, but lines as well as objects were dropped. The production did not exude an air of readiness — and that would be nice.
It would also be nice to feel that there’s a message to all this madness. But, this is high concept low comedy. Be happy if you get a few guffaws. And there are plenty of genres to choose from — like a drag ballet, a German army comedy corps that executes audience members, a can-can display, a Japanese juggling fan dance. And a gory murder story a` la Grand Guignol, with stuffed guts falling out all over the place.
As for the breaking of the wind…. with all the buildup — an act and a half of it, to be precise — it wafts past you in only about four minutes of stage time. The blasts are impressively accomplished — I’m not quite sure HOW they did it — but the wind instrument itself doesn’t produce a very wide range of notes and sounds, like the master Pujol obviously did. Oh, you might say, that was anatomical. Yes, but this is theater.
Actually, it’s the film parts that are some of the highlights of this production. The Karamazovs got all their families together and shot a decadent, French, black and white feast of artistes. It’s delicious. The onscreen-offscreen interaction of older and younger Louis Pujol was amusing, too. And, after the curtain calls — be sure not to blast right out of the theater — there’s a small filmic addendum that was pretty hilarious. It simulates, it tells us, Howard Patterson’s mother, trying to explain to her friend exactly how her son is now earning money — farting onstage. “But I thought he was gonna be a scientist!” the other woman says incredulously. Now THAT’s a moment of inspired silliness. Would that there were more of them throughout “Le Petomane.” In its current form, the piece just doesn’t have the sweet smell of long-lasting theatrical success.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1992 Patté Productions Inc.