“Moles” Shocks, Amuses at Skirball

Skirball brings French director and visual artist Philippe Quesne’s “The Night of the Moles” to NYU, welcoming audiences into its subterranean world populated by gigantic rodents in this wordless theater experience.

The Moles, a live show from French theater director and visual artist Philippe Quesne, tells a story about seven giant moles. (Via NYU Skirball)

A group of seven larger-than-life-sized moles took over NYU Skirball last weekend, as Philippe Quesne’s darkly humorous performance of “The Moles” took place last Friday through Saturday.

The original show, “Night of the Moles, premiered in August 2018 at the Tampere Theatre Festival. For its Skirball debut, it was expanded to include a “Parade of the Moles” (Friday, 11 a.m.), a promotional tour of Greenwich Village and a “Day of the Moles” (Saturday, 3 p.m.). 

In the “Parade of the Moles,” the cast explored — in mole costume — the landmarks of Greenwich Village, the seven of them a spectacle that would be commonplace in Times Square but drew more attention downtown. The Instagram account Subway Creatures, which documents odd sightings on the subway, even posted a video of it. 

“The Day of the Moles” was a child-friendly, Saturday matinee version of Quesne’s provocative original. 

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But if you met the 16-year-old threshold, “The Night of the Moles,” which took place on both Friday and Saturday nights, was not an event to miss. 

With 10 years of experience in set design before founding the Vivarium Studio Company in 2003, Quesne not only directed and conceived the play, he also designed the set. Decorated with groupings of stalagmites, the cave-like setting transported the audience to the underground world of the moles. 

Upon entering the theater Saturday night, the crowd peered at the stage before them and waited in anticipation. 

But the full view of the stage wasn’t visible until about halfway through the performance. 

As the play began, the “caveland” was obscured by a large wooden box, with the side closest to the audience removed, allowing them to look inside. 

Not sure what to expect from the avant-garde performance, the audience shrieked in surprise and then laughed as the moles dug a tunnel through the backside of the box, crawling through it with large rocks and then slowly destroying the rest of the wooden paneling to reveal the cave behind it. 

In a description on Skirball’s website, Quesne’s set design and story are called a “playful rendition” of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. The parallel is especially apparent at the start of the performance when the moles leave their underground cave world to explore the wood-paneled box, only to destroy it and return to the cave after. 

Though essentially devoid of plot, there was never a dull moment throughout the hour-and-20-minute performance, thanks to the unceasingly bizarre series of mole happenings. 

The moles present us with a model for communal living, their interactions with one another playful at one moment and aggressive the next as they participate in the daily rituals of, for example, rolling balls back and forth to each other. 

The audience is left to observe — and make sense — of this worldless journey. The observing is gleeful; the making sense often proved more challenging.

Oh, and the moles are also punk rockers, with a mole band playing a psychedelic melody throughout the show.

The 16-year-old age requirement for “The Night of the Moles” was absolutely valid. One of the moles fails to be revived by multiple attempts at mole CPR. There is also a mole masturbation scene as well as a full-on mole intercourse scene.

Perhaps the most graphic and jaw-dropping moment of the night was when one of the moles gave birth in full view of the audience. The memorable moment left the crowd with little to imagine in terms of how a human-sized mole would actually give birth. 

The lively performance, which was filled with mole slides, electric scooters and larger-than-life earthworm snacks, may have caused the crowd to question what the hell they were watching. But at the end of the night when the moles removed their heads and the actors beneath were revealed, they were met with a hearty standing ovation. 

At the end of his performances, Quesne is notorious for hinting at what viewers should expect from his next project. Although not a clear sneak peek, the actor who played the mole that gave birth during the show ran backstage to grab the baby mole. With the crowd still cheering, he held it out for everyone to see.

Email Madeline Lyskawa at [email protected]

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