While romantic drama fuels much of the theatrical repertoire, what happens after a catastrophic breakup isn’t nearly as easy to translate onstage. In “With No Fanfare,” a French musical theater production directed by Samuel Achache, it takes a set that literally falls apart to establish the slow process of picking up the pieces.
The metaphor is transparent, but it isn’t overblown. “With No Fanfare” (“Sans Tambour”) centers on a nameless couple, a man and a woman who have already reached their breaking point when the play starts. The man (Lionel Dray) frantically washes the dishes in a small sink; the woman (Sarah Le Picard) accuses him of caring only about clogged drains. As they trade barbs, they punch the kitchen walls, or whack household items at them. One by one, the walls collapse like a house of cards.
And that’s just the first 15 minutes. What comes next — mourning and rebuilding — is told through a whimsical mix of musical numbers and dreamlike vignettes. One character lands at an imaginary clinic for broken hearts. Later, the cast re-enacts the medieval story of the star-crossed Tristan and Isolde. The process is unpredictable, tragicomic, slightly messy — and thoroughly touching.
“With No Fanfare” first made a splash at the Avignon Festival last summer, and it has now reached the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris, where it feels right at home. When the director Peter Brook brought this dilapidated music hall back to life in the 1970s, he didn’t hide the visible wear and tear on the walls. The set, a two-story house designed by Lisa Navarro, has a similarly ramshackle quality, with peeling paint and a hazardous stairwell.
Over the past decade, Achache has developed a quirky brand of musical theater, often in tandem with a co-director, Jeanne Candel. The company he founded in 2021, La Sourde, employs both musicians and actors, and “With No Fanfare” takes advantage of that as it weaves compositions by cast members and the musical director, Florent Hubert, on top of a series of lieder by Schumann.
The soprano Agathe Peyrat sings many of these numbers, and acts almost as a shadow for the actors, expressing their grief-stricken feelings. Along with her, five musicians are onstage nearly throughout, and they also take smaller acting parts.
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The back-and-forth between drama and music lends “With No Fanfare” much of its power, because the show’s dreamlike logic can be hard to follow. The part in which characters play Tristan and Isolde doesn’t quite land, for instance: A relationship built on a mythical love potion isn’t an ideal point of comparison for a modern couple.
“With No Fanfare” is stronger when Achache and his cast (who all get a writing credit) let their imaginations roam freely. Once the central relationship has crumbled for good, the woman suddenly reappears at a treatment center where doctors offer remedies for heartbreak.
There, the woman meets a third character, a writer named Spinel. Played by the actor and singer Léo-Antonin Lutinier, Spinel is a test patient for the clinic’s offbeat, metaphorical procedures. On doctors’ orders, he swims in his own tears. Later, he has surgery to remove the last remaining traces of love from his brain.
Lutinier brings a dryly burlesque quality to the proceedings, and Spinel is in some ways the most affecting character, even though his relationship with the others isn’t fully fleshed out. Many scenes in “With No Fanfare” rely on plain physical comedy, as when Spinel tries to reach a piano that is hovering above the stage. He looks at it, and then brings a ladder that doesn’t reach; when he tries to climb it despite this, the steps give out under him, a Buster Keaton-style digression.
Yet even the most absurd scenes have a melancholy quality to them. Achache somehow connects them to the long, frustrating process of rebuilding a life when the world you had imagined with someone collapses. As the nameless central man, Dray — an actor with over-the-top energy — spends much of the show standing precariously on a half-destroyed stool, a hammer in hand.
It makes little sense on paper, yet onstage what you see is a man struggling to re-establish a sense of normalcy. Achache doesn’t aim for a tidy narrative. The characters don’t get a happy ending, or any real ending at all, but that lack of resolution rings true.
At the end, Dray sits alone on the upper level of the set, dangling his legs over the edge, and surveys the ruins underneath. “And still, I coped with it,” he says, looking bemused. Mourning is a mental journey, and “With No Fanfare” makes a fitting visual and musical response to its twists and turns.