Villon at the Odyssey Theater
As with any good artist, Villon shocked his audiences, entertained them, and even educated them. He wrote his poetic masterpiece, Ballade des Pendus (Ballad of the Hanged) while in prison awaiting execution (he was pardoned in time by Charles VII).
He lived in Paris at the cusp in history when the Middle Ages became the Renaissance: He was born the year that Joan of Arc was burned at the stake (Medieval France); and he disappeared from history 13 years after the Gutenberg Press was invented (the beginning of the Renaissance). It was a time of plague and the end of the Hundred Years War. Both had devastating effects on the country. One fourth of the population of France had been killed off. In Paris it was worse; fifty percent of the inhabitants had died. The life expectancy at the time was 25 years at birth. This was the France that Villon inhabited and that informed his poetry. He is considered the father of French poetry.
There is not much known about Francois Villon's life. We think that he was an orphan, and that he was cared for by a cleric named Francois Villon, from whom he took his name. He graduated from the Sorbonne with a Maitrise which allowed him to teach and with which he could have gained entry into religious orders. Instead, as gleaned from a few court documents, he seems to have followed a life of delinquency. He was involved in a robbery of 500 gold ecus. He was accused, then acquitted of murder.
How do we reconcile these facts - that he had been given the advantages of an education yet ended up in the gutters? One theory is that he was an innocent who happened to fall in with the wrong crowd.
Villon the play by Murray Mednick at the Odyssey Theater suggests another possibility. The premise is that Villon was not to the innocent-manor born but rather an innate rascal with a genius side for poetry. There are two sides to Villon in this play and the delinquent side has the upper hand.
The play opens with the actors talking directly to the audience – an interesting ploy and a good one. First of all it works! Secondly, it's fun; but it is also a necessary ploy. Not many theater goers are that familiar with Francois Villon, or his life and times, and this ploy allows facts to be presented, in a clever and palatable fashion, without the use of a "patsy" character to whom everything is explained with dialogue so that audience members will "get it" (while the play drags). This "meta-theater" continues throughout the play, taking incidents of his life and relating them to the culture of today with discussions to the audience. It works well mainly because the actors Kevin Weisman as Francois Villon and Peggy Ann Blow as Clotilde, are good at it. It is a pleasure watching them interact on stage while throwing comments and asides to each other and to the audience.
As the play progresses, we soon realize that Villon is a rogue and he enjoys being one. He will draw his dagger whenever and wherever, whether he needs to or not. He talks about happily knocking people on the head with a cudgel. And he enjoys his notoriety. We plainly see his delinquent side.
The play, though, has a problem with connecting Francois Villon the delinquent to Francois Villon the poet. The attempt is made to bridge the connection between the two disparate sides of Villon by having Kevin Weisman as Francois Villon the delinquent read poems by Francois Villon the poet from the stage to the audience. However, the readings are incomprehensible. Sadly not a single word makes any sense. It is unfortunate. This could be due to a bad translation. In point of fact, almost any translation of Villon's poetry is difficult. As David Georgi states in Poems of Francois Villon, "Villon's poems riot with sarcasm, satire, gallows humor, fart jokes, and puns," which are notoriously hard to translate. For whatever reason, Villon the poet does not emerge in this play.
Villon the play is one act, with no intermissions, and goes through Villon's known life, sometimes in a non-linear fashion; but never is it confusing or boring.
Written and Directed by Murray Mednick
Presented by Padua Playwrights
(For more information visit the Padua Playwrights organization online.)
Starring Peggy A. Blow, Kevin Weisman, Alana Dietze, Troy Emmet Dunn, Geofry Dwyer, Carl J. Johnson, Gray Palmer, and Christopher Rivas
Set Design by Keith Mitchell
Lighting Design by Matt Richter
Costume Design by Adriana Lambarri
Sound by John Zalewski
with Kathleen Mae Meler as Production Stage Manager
2055 South Sepulveda Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90025
(310) 477-2055 for tickets
For more information visit the Odyssey Theater online.
Performances $30 reserved seating only:
Fri., Sat., and Sun. performances
From Saturday February 15 through Sunday March 23.
Parking is available in front of the theatre for $3.00 per performance.
There is ample street parking as well.