“Blood is not water” was one of my grandmother’s frequently quoted proverbs, and it is the first thing that comes to mind, only minutes after my eyes land on Aurélia Thiérrée, as the curtain rises on the opening night performance of Murmurs as part of Lincoln Center Festival 2013. You see, Thiérrée – who is the centerpiece of this production – is the granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin, no less, and I feel like the spirit of her grandfather is shadowing her throughout the performance, hiding somewhere behind those wide eyes and expressive gait. Ms Thiérrée developed Murmurs in collaboration with her mother, Victoria Thiérrée Chaplin (Charlie’s daughter), but has really sharpened her teeth over the years performing on the stage since her childhood in her parents’ circus shows (Le Cirque Imaginaire and Le Cirque Invisible.)

Murmurs, starring Aurélia Thierrée; created by Victoria Thierrée Chaplin © Richard Haughton
Murmurs, starring Aurélia Thierrée; created by Victoria Thierrée Chaplin
© Richard Haughton

In the opening moments of Murmurs, Thiérrée is on stage alone surrounded by cardboard boxes, and a few possessions strewn across the stage floor. Dust falls from the ceiling, moving men urge her to sign the paperwork and leave – which she will refuse to comply with for the duration of the show. What exactly is happening here, I wonder? Is some sort of natural disaster afoot? Is her home being demolished? Instead of providing answers, Thiérrée puts the good old smoke and mirrors to good use – and highly inventively so – to propel the audience through a rapid sequence of dramatic, theatrical and magical vignettes that don’t quite add up to a story but rather into a surreal rollercoaster of events where one isn’t given much choice except to hang onto the seat and go in for a ride. Joined on the stage by two versatile – think clown, mime and acrobat rolled into one – male performers (Jaime Martinez and Magnus Jakobsson), Thiérrée becomes the magician and the consumer of magic, both the puppeteer and the puppet – and it is her sensitive treatment of the quotidian stuff and actions that makes me perceive them as extraordinary. Together, the three actors – but, really the spotlight is on Thiérrée, and rightly so – magically transform inanimate objects and detritus of everyday life into veritable flights of fancy.

Make no mistake: there is no Cirque-du-Soleil-like high-tech wizardry on display here; rather, it is as if the creative team went dumpster diving behind a Hollywood soundstage after a film wrapped. But again, the show’s scrappy grunge minimalism, I would argue, is what engages the audience members, seducing spectators to use their imagination, which is what makes Thiérrée’s absurdist acts ultimately quite engaging. As the vignettes wear on, a pile of bubble wrap becomes some sort of dragon; two-dimensional drops with low-resolution screen-prints of old building facades appear and disappear; Thiérrée dances on a table, then appears to float off on the side of it, suspended in mid air; the forest on a peeling wallpaper becomes animated; and so forth.

Delightful and unpretentious, this piece is imbued with the dusty charm of a Georges Méliès film. What it all means is anyone’s guess – and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. I can tell that the material feels very personal to Thiérrée and her creative cohorts – I may not know exactly where they are coming from, but the intimacy of their work makes it easy for me to make it my own. The train of thought I personally rode during the performance had me wondering how sometimes, when one’s mind is unable to let go of certain events from the past, the accumulation of those memories can make one go insane. But again, I am sure there were probably quite a few (and equally valid) interpretations of this work floating around the theatre by the time a Siamese kitten jumped off the stage, running up the length of an entire aisle, then back on the stage and into the wings – the pièce de résistance of the Murmurs’ final moments.