A Crafty, Entertaining `Renard the Fox': Le Neon Deftly Tames French Animal Fables

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True or false:

"Renard" always has been the French word for fox.

If you guessed "true," you're wrong. Before the 12th century, the French word for fox was "goupil." A series of folk tales about a crafty fox named "Renart," however, became so wildly popular among the French that they effectively renamed the animal after that beloved character. Today, the old word is long forgotten, and the spelling of the new name has become "renard."

Arlington's enterprising French troupe, Le Neon Theatre, has turned a few of the folk tales that appear in the medieval "Le Roman de Renart" (roughly, "The Novel of Renard, the Fox") - a narrative of the animal's daring adventures - into an amusing play suitable for children of all ages and grown-ups.

"Renard" is not just a story about amusing forest animals. It's also an allegory and a satire, with the animals representing various character types and political operatives in the French courts.

Dominique Montet and Didier Rousselet have updated a few of Renard's most outrageous escapades - translated into animal English by Susan Haedicke and Monica Neagoy - creating an elaborate costume drama that relies heavily on pantomime and suggestion to convey each story.

In some ways, this production is one of the most peculiar theater pieces you'll see this season. The stories are suggested, rather than told, in a language heavily accented with the grunts, growls, groans and snarls of each animal.

The actors, decked out in nearly full animal heads and dressed in dazzling medieval costumes designed by Justine Scherer, are totally in animal character, walking and gesticulating in ways unique to each animal, a little like "Cats" plus.

In an inversion of such morality plays as "Everyman," Renard flouts morality as he moves through the episodes, stealing chickens, tweaking beaks and playing tricks on his unfortunate compatriots. And yet, while the characters are animal in word and deed, they also are human in their naughtiness and in their relentless efforts to dominate one another.

Both the original stories and the current dramatic adaptation provide a way for viewers to laugh at human folly without laughing at themselves. To fully enjoy this play, a willing suspension of disbelief is required - this is not the Discovery Channel.

The adventures of Renard the Fox (Mikael Manoukian) often focus on an oh-so-French romantic triangle of Renard, Ysengrin the wolf (Catherine Claereboudt) and Hersent, Ysengrin's flirtatious wife (Ellie Nicoll).

Like Loki of Norse mythology and other legendary renegades in ancient literature, Renard is really a form of the much-beloved trickster, the character who can get away with anything. He may not be as strong or as rich as his adversaries, but he's cleverer than all of them, and he usually triumphs over adversity with his wits. In America, the methods - and the attitude - of Brer Rabbit and Bugs Bunny come to mind. …