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Unconventional Hilarity

A French comedy troupe keeps audiences teetering on the brink of uncertainty - and they love it

NO doubt about it: There's a dangerous pig lurking behind the sideboard. It's a distinctly shabby sideboard, placed at mid-stage. Apart from the even shabbier baby carriage, the sideboard is the main prop for ``C'est Dimanche,'' and ``C'est Dimanche'' is this year's hilarious offering at the Edinburgh International Festival of the French Compagnie J'er^ome Deschamps. It's the company's second visit, following an astonishing contribution last year that featured faded songs performed by music-hall singers of yesteryear. That was called ``Les Petits Pas.'' It surprised and delighted audiences with its unpredictable mix of touching and outrageous humor. And at least one man in the audience the night we attended very nearly had to be carried out because of a classic case of loud, helpless laughter.

In ``C'est Dimanche'' there is actually some doubt about the pig. For one thing, it isn't always there. Sometimes it's fairly safe for one of the three ``heroes,'' unlikely characters that they are, to stray behind the sideboard. But then again, when they do, they may fall downstairs with an incredible clatter; or ride up and down in an elevator with a mind of its own and no ``off'' switch.

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The audience never sees the pig. In fact, we suspect that its sounds are made by someone - probably the accordian-player - hiding behind the sideboard. He is Philippe Roueche, a program note explains, a native of Belfort and the son of a butcher. Apart from having a masters degree from the Strasbourg Conservatory, he ``recently gave in to the gentle persuasion of his friends and joined a fitness club.'' The note ends: ``We are all very pleased.'' This doesn't, however, prevent his jaunty accordion music from sometimes getting stuck like a cracked gramophone record.

Deschamps' humor is quirky, indefinable, and thought-provoking. ``Les Petits Pas'' contrived to permit the audience to laugh at the frailty of age and at unabashed nostalgia for a type of entertainment long gone and probably not up to much in the first place. But were these old performers playing a joke at our expense, or had they really been wrapped up against the Edinburgh cold and brought unwittingly to the theater from a rest home?

The inspired amateurism of Deschamps' approach to comedy means that the audience is put in a state of uncertainty, teetering on the brink of embarrassment. One miscalculation in the light tone of the entertainment and, instead of laughter, we'd be falling into an abyss of shock or distaste. But the company never lets us do that.

A fragile, white-haired entertainer in ``Les Petits Pas,'' tottered across the boards and, with agonizing difficulty, mounted a small podium. Then, with pathetic dignity, he attempted to conduct an inconsequential little tune. The audience didn't know whether to admire, weep, or giggle.

Later in the evening, after a some similar vignettes by other ancients, our white-haired conductor suddenly jumped up from his seat at the back of the stage and did some vigorous cartwheels across it with the agility of a 10-year-old. The applause was deafening: The joke was on us, and we loved it.

In ``C'est Dimanche,'' we watch with similar bemusement as the three characters undergo the boredom, the ``enforced ease,'' of a Sunday. The piece was written and directed by Deschamps. One of his collaborators, Macha Makeieff, notes in the program that these heroes - who are actually extraordinarily ordinary - have to try to ``be a little bit happier, whatever the cost. They can't seem to sustain this, so they hang on to the memory and traces of happiness which defies organization and then jumps out and surprises one as soon as one's back is turned, like magic.''

Got that?

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Well, without giving too much away, I can say that there is sudden, surprising, very beautiful magic in this show. The characters waver between childish fun and downright panic. Their world is really quite hopeless.

The consequences of any act, however slight, are unpredictable: The top of the saltseller is unbudgeably stuck; Jean-Marc Bihour's left hand keeps springing up under his armpit uncontrollably as if on elastic; the gloriously comic Christine Pignet is worried about the shape of her kneecaps; the television breaks down with a bang, and they all weep with frustrated anger.

And yet, who can tell what unforeseen wonder may appear out of the baby carriage?

Suffice it to say that any opportunity to see the Compagnie J'er^ome Deschamps should be grabbed with both feet.

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