(from The New York Times, 8/20; Photo: The New York Times; via Pam Green.)

PARIS — In countries where live performances have resumed, masked audiences have become a familiar — if still curious — sight. Face coverings for actors are another matter, however: How can performers project their voices and emotions, many theater professionals have asked, with more than half their faces obscured?

The itinerant company Les Tréteaux de France has taken up the challenge — and while performing a 17th-century verse play, no less. Last week, in Cergy, a suburb to the west of Paris, seven masked actors traded alexandrines in Racine’s “Britannicus,” a tragedy charting the Roman emperor Nero’s descent into violent lunacy after he abducts the fiancée of Britannicus, his half brother.

A verse prologue co-written by the cast and the director, Robin Renucci, attempted to explain the unusual costumes. Rome, they said in character before the show started, had been hit by a plague, and masks were a necessity.

The warning felt superfluous, since masks are a time-honored theater tradition. The main difference is that the current pandemic requires the mouth to be covered, whereas commedia dell’arte-style half-masks are typically designed to exaggerate the forehead, the eyes and the nose, leaving the mouth unobstructed.

In a phone interview, Renucci, who has been at the helm of Les Tréteaux de France since 2011, said that the cast of “Britannicus” started rehearsing with their new props in May, as soon as lockdown ended in France. Acting with a mask is not just a matter of habit. When a performer speaks a lot onstage, Renucci said, masks become damp and stick to the skin, so each cast member goes through four or five of them over a two-hour performance. They have experimented with different fabrics: While many wear cotton masks, one actress, Nadine Darmon (who plays Agrippine), switched to polyamide during the run in Cergy, to test the effect on the sound.

Add to that persistent rain in Cergy, where “Britannicus” was performed under a tent at an outdoor activities center, and during the first few scenes, it took some effort to latch onto the solemn, deliberate rhythm of Racine’s verse. The actors’ voices sounded muffled, with duller consonants, and several performers were forced to regularly nudge their masks — sliding down their chins with every monologue — back into place.

Yet soon enough, my ear adjusted. We were seated on all four sides of the small stage, and this proximity between cast and audience helped alleviate the muffling effect. The actors betrayed very little discomfort — no small feat considering that breathing in Racine’s plays is tied to the ebb and flow of the alexandrines.

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