A young man with an extremely long neck, wearing a hat with a cord around the crown instead of a ribbon, believes a man next to him on a crowded bus is deliberately jostling him. He snaps at the stranger, then throws himself into an available seat. Two hours later, that same young man is told by a friend that he should add a button to his coat. In his book Exercises in Style, Raymond Queneau reworked this simple story line 99 times, in various literary styles. Arlington’s Le Neon theater has created a stage adaptation of Queneau’s exercises, using theatrical styles as he used literary ones. The first half of the evening has 12 adaptations; the second, three; and though each presentation doesn’t necessarily repeat the entire story, each contains essential elements—the hat, the bus, the button, etc.—that unify the production, which might otherwise dissolve into chaos. Part I, in which about 80 percent of the dialogue is in French, features Patricia Buignet, Barbara Papendorp, and Didier Rousselet, first telling the story in a straightforward way, then starting on the variations. An absurdist version has Papendorp answering a phone on the outside of the corrugated tin and copper pipe bus: She listens for a moment, repeats, “Button?,” looks down at her coat, then screams and runs off stage. There’s also a kind of French New Wave-meets-clown-

college sketch, which highlights the three actors’ amazing gifts for physical comedy. In one interpretation, gaunt Buster Keaton look-alike Rousselet simply stands behind the bus in a raincoat, reciting in a deadpan voice, “The bus, full/The heart, empty/The neck, long…” Part II begins with a largely dialogue-free performance inspired by An American in Paris: A young tourist takes snapshots of the bus passengers and gets involved in their conflicts, romances, and, yes, the button and the hat with the cord. For the last two pieces, the bus set is removed and the costumes are reduced to simple black tops and pants: Naoko Maeshiba’s Noh-inspired performance art has the cast chanting like monks; finally, Jose Carasquillo delivers an ultraminimalist interpretation, which preserves only key words of the original story. But somehow, by the end of the evening, the mere word “button” has become hilarious. The vast majority of the fun comes through dance, pantomime, slapstick, music, and movement (which don’t require any knowledge of French). All of the six directors, not to mention the lighting, set, and sound people, deserve credit for making the multiple retellings fresh and unexpected. These are exercises in imagination, not just style. —Janet Hopf

More from WCP