Photo: Michele Laurent/Courtesy of Lincoln Center; Illustration by Sean McCabe

To create her latest production, director Ariane Mnouchkine amassed what the spooks call “human intelligence,” a phrase more apt than they realize. With members of her Paris-based troupe, Le Théâtre du Soleil, she interviewed refugees of every description, learning about their harrowing journeys, degrading camps, and heartbreaking separations. Past attempts to use this method, and to handle this material, have tended to leave a distinct mediciney aftertaste. Any fears that Le Dernier Caravansérail (Odyssées) will do the same should last a minute or so, tops.

For no sooner do you reach your seat for “Le fleuve cruel,” the first half of the epic, than the eponymous cruel river crashes across the stage. Huge billowing gray fabric and roaring sound effects conjure the forces that keep a family of refugees from reaching the far bank. It’s terrifying, thrilling. And if you think nothing could top an effect so potent, wait until the start of part two, “Origines et destins.” That’s when Mnouchkine will send the entire Pacific Ocean rushing downstage toward you, and the puny exiles come bobbing in on its waves.

The Lincoln Center Festival specializes in strange collisions—oddly paired creators, improbable mixes of style and subject. Still, the hybrid quality of Mnouchkine’s extravaganza stands out. She has found a way to fuse picayune human details—interviews, letters, the daily news—with the inspired sweep of her theatrical imagination. The result is a global portrait, a panoramic view of the human casualties of our corrupt, violent, God-crazed world.

Not exactly frothy summer fare, Mnouchkine’s work. Yet despite its gravity, the show has a riveting appeal. The scenes are short and sometimes wordless. Actors zip around on little wagons—their feet never touching the ground—enacting episodes on small platforms. The whole enterprise gets an incalculable boost from the music of Jean-Jacques Lemêtre, whose energetic scoring gives the show the pulse of a summer blockbuster. It even has bad guys worthy of Bruckheimer. The Kalashnikov-toting Taliban—dark, scowling, sadistic—are presented here as something like stock villains of old melodrama. And since the Taliban really are something like stock villains of old melodrama, this may be regarded as another triumph of the documentary impulse.

Mnouchkine makes no sweeping statements here, allows no Anglos in neckties to step forward and pepper us with statistics. In considering the global refugee crisis, she keeps her focus trained on the individual, the pair of lovers, the family. Mostly she gives us humanity at its most despicable. The show is awash in thieves, pimps, thugs, murderers, and every kind of opportunist; there is even an intimation of terrorism. Yet she insists on moments of redemption: When a man reaches into boiling water to grab a potato for his traveling companion, she does the same for him, and they realize they’re in love.

The show’s pivotal scene finds two grubby refugees huddled together under an electrical pole in Bosnia (the echo of Beckett can’t be an accident). “Life passes, a mysterious caravan. Let us feel each minute of joy,” says an Iranian refugee. His listener, an Afghan, notes that all caravans end in Rome. And so the two of them set off smiling toward Rome, undaunted by the fact that their wagons are carrying them directly backward. For every reason this show provides to be ashamed of your humanity, it offers another to be proud.

Six hours of anecdotage, however brilliant, are bound to be wearying; it wouldn’t ruin Mnouchkine’s opus to lose an hour here or there. Whatever complaints may accrue, there’s no doubting the work’s originality or its consequence—neither of which qualities is evident in the other major theatrical event of the festival so far, Robert Wilson’s I La Galigo. He has carved from the massive Indonesian poem “Sureq Galigo” an intermissionless, three-hour creation myth. Deploying his usual mix of slow movements, ritual gestures, and color-coded design—funny how that approach seems to suit whatever material comes his way—Wilson at times achieves an undeniable beauty. But for a story that hinges on the incestuous love of royal twins, full of passion, magic, and adventure, the show is inexplicably bloodless. His hieratic approach rejects the very quality that makes Mnouchkine’s docu-spectacle so astonishing: a desire to embrace humanity in all its lyrical disarray.

Le Dernier Caravansérail (Odyssées)
Ariane Mnouchkine.
Lincoln Center Festival 2005.
At Damrosch Park.
Through July 31.

I La Galigo
Robert Wilson.
Lincoln Center Festival 2005.
Rose Theater.