As most theaters in France remain temporarily shuttered due to the Coronavirus pandemic, in the historical theme park of Puy du Fou in Les Epesses, immersive and open-air theater productions have been taking place since June 11th, 2020. While most summer festivals were canceled, the Puy du Fou’s early reopening was met with dismay from the performing arts sector because Philippe de Villiers, the founder of the park, a far-right politician, tweeted that the country’s president, Emmanuel Macron had interceded to help the reopening, reported Laura Cappelle of The New York Times.
While France was slowly recovering from the sudden spread of Coronavirus, the Puy du Fou attempted at limiting the number of visitors allowed in each show by keeping alternate rows of seats empty. However, the park’s free-seating policy failed to enforce the required social distancing measures. According to a spokeswoman for the park, Puy du Fou draws an average of 5,000 visitors during the weekends of whom, many choose not to be masked while watching outdoor performances.
According to Cappelle, while the Puy du Fou’s goal is to “wow and entertain” its audience with elaborate stage designs and visual effects, many of the shows make unsolicited historical declarations. This has subjected their narratives to criticisms from historians. The Puy du Fou started in 1977 with La Cinéscénie, a re-enactment of the history of the Catholic and royalist Vendée region to bring forth a traumatic period in local history when numerous lives were lost during the French Revolution. But The Last Panache production asserts that the story is “authentic” while depicting the revolutionaries of the time as “bloodthirsty monsters” who are aimed at suppressing “freedom” and “exterminate the Vendean race”.
Similarly, other pieces also come with deeply religious narratives— A saint in The Vikings appears to subjugate the Vikings who then promise to follow his path and live by his teachings, while the immersive production of The First Kingdom where the audience meanders from scene to scene, culminating in King Clovis I’s Catholic baptism, while a symbol of French royalty— the fleurs-de-lis— is projected onto screens around him. According to the spokeswoman, all the shows in the Puy de Fou are written by de Villiers and co-directed by him alongside Nicholas de Villiers, his son, and Laurent Albert, the park’s general director.
Cappelle noted that while the actors’ performances feel “flattened” due to them lip-synching to recorded dialogue, coupled with fantasy-style music; the animals involved in the productions take the stage away. Trained tigers, lions, horses, and camels make appearances, while The Phantom Birds’ Dance features birds of prey from the Puy du Fou’s falconry school.
Additionally, the show extends to the Puy du Fou’s stores and gift shops where coopers and glassmakers promote historical crafts in period costumes. According to several store owners, the park makes their trade viable.
Featured Image Via Canva