Eric Bouvron and Benjamin Penamaria have crafted a zippy, low-tech stage biography, whose central highlight is live music, with two musicians and a singer onstage throughout. The artistic team clearly came to this story with good intentions. The Sykes-Picot Agreement, a secret 1916 treaty that outlined how the Ottoman lands would be divided between France and the United Kingdom, is explained and denounced. As in the film, Lawrence is made aware of the plan late, and disagrees with it.
Yet this “Lawrence of Arabia” doesn’t engage with the problems involved in representing Arab history and culture through the eyes of a British colonial-era hero. While the show includes some dialogue in Arabic, the frequent use of “Allahu akbar” as a war cry plays into Muslim caricatures, and a faux-“Oriental” dance is a low point.
As the central character, Lawrence is depicted as a master strategist, without whom Arab leaders wouldn’t have accomplished much. Lawrence’s close Arab friend, Daoum, speaks in cringeworthy pidgin French that highlights his lack of education and manners, and follows Lawrence like an over-excited puppy.
It is difficult to understand why anyone would want to reaffirm these dated perspectives today, but “Lawrence of Arabia” is in many ways typical of the production style favored in France’s private sector. Its storytelling is relentlessly upbeat and fast-paced, with regular visual jokes and puns; the characters are brightly captured, yet often one-dimensional.
The main goal, clearly, is entertainment, and two of the other nominees for best private-sector production are made of the same cloth: “The Race of Giants,” written and directed by Mélody Mourey, and Léna Bréban’s production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.”
At the Théâtre des Béliers Parisiens, “The Race of Giants” (through May 29) dives into the 20th-century space race, efficiently weaving together history and fiction. Mourey invents a brilliant yet troubled astronaut, Jack Mancini, who makes it to NASA in the 1960s — only to be betrayed by a secret Soviet agent. The production makes inventive use of video and very few props, which allows for fast transitions and jumps back and forth in time.