Un peu d’histoire s’est produit à Ottawa récemment.
It’s not every day that the usually staid capital launches a World Premiere, no less. Ce n’est pas tout, il y en a d’autre à dire. When GCTC in conjunction with Théâtre la Cutapulte launched Les Passants in Ottawa on February 23, 2017, it was unprecedented not only for its celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary. The play also was written for our city, was obviously performed first for our city, as premieres are, and united two important theatre companies in the capital.
Untold benefits accrue when a conventional English theatre innovates to produce a French pièce de théâtre in a bilingual format. It introduces a French play to its English audience and opens up English theatre to French audiences. I can hardly think of a better birthday present than this, one that commemorates our country’s dual Anglophone/Francophone heritage.
Les Passants opens with a dream sequence. Dreamer Annie floats in a boat she shares with the black-hooded Grim Reaper (or perhaps the ancient Roman poet Virgil?) as both cross the river depicted as Hell in Dante’s Inferno. As visually captivating as this scene was, the rube in me had difficulty sequencing it to the twenty other vignettes representing playwright Luc Moquin’s poignant observations on alienation, individualism and relationships in contemporary society.
The ‘passersby’ of his title are the many faces we may haphazardly pass and never come to intimately know but whose stories we’re familiar with. Alienation manifests with the trench-coated man with briefcase (achingly wrought by Yves Turbide), who’s confused by all he’s supposed to do and deadlines he’s to meet, lost by where he’s ended up yet reassured by the phone in his pocket. He reappears in subsequent sequences — desperately trying to get medical treatment but needing first to take a number, then disarmingly duct-taped with Semtex inside his trench coat, poised to blow himself and everything else up, all as a cry for love and attention.
(Jean Stéphane) weaves through compelling themes using the most minimal of props, just light, screen and shadow.
Individualism manifests with Marc (the appropriately aloof Benjamin Gaillard) whose life of consuming beer and television is marked off in minutes, hours and events to which he’s oblivious. Likewise, the woman consumed with needing a “baby” grand piano she’ll never play (performed perfectly over the top by Mélanie Beauchamp) or the man whose collection of books he’ll never read, all for lack of time.
Relationships manifest with the search for companionship by nerdy Bertrand (Benjamin Gaillard), continually deserted by women for his inability to express emotions and when he finally does express them to Alice (Mélanie Beauchamp), he’s so sure she’ll never return that he leaves to spare himself grief. They also manifest with the search for sex (or the fantasy of it) that comes with but a knock on the door.
Some of the vignettes cut deep — the October 2014 attack on Parliament cast in eerie shadows by the return of the Grim Reaper — while others are gut-splittingly campy sendups, like the dissolving marriage between library archivist/secret spy agent Nora (finely timed by Andrée Rainville) and poor unsuspecting Etienne (Yves Turbide), about to be dumped for a Bulgarian spy.
What makes this production so luminous is how cleverly director Jean Stéphane Roy imparts candour to stories told in snippets. He weaves through compelling themes using the most minimal of props, just light, screen and shadow. I loved the sensational surprise when Roy harnessed shadows to huge, let’s say really huge, effect in the behind-the- screen scene-stealer, not that I’ll spoil it by saying a word more…
The set comprises little more than swinging panels at the stage sides for the actors’ exit and a screen backdrop to the rear where they mill about as though passersby in a crowd. The music choices were particularly effective; who knew Vaudeville could be put to such great use anymore?
By play’s end when the players took a bow to rousing applause, I shook my head in amazement that the 20-odd sketches were performed by just four versatile actors.
Did I mention that this is all in French? Thanks to above-stage projection of surtitles (whose timing could benefit from the teeniest bit of tweaking), both sides of the so-called Two Solitudes, as well as those of us who straddle each, derive one and only one thing out of this production: pure enjoyment.
All photos courtesy: GCTC/Théâtre la Catapulte
Les Passants : GCTC, co-production with Théâtre la Catapulte
By Luc Moquin; Directed by Jean Stéphane Roy; Translated by Lisa L’Heureux
Thursday, February 23 to March 12, 2017
Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre, 1233 Wellington St. West
Tickets: (613) 236-5196 | Fax: (613) 232-2075 | Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Allyson Domanski writes about travel, the arts and reviews theatre for Ottawa Tonite as well as for Newswest. She is currently completing a major work of creative non-fiction to be published in 2017. An avid traveller and not-quite year-round cyclist, she and her husband spent two and a half years bicycling around the world before she joined the territorial then the federal public service. The hockey and lacrosse mom, owner of a Husky and une cabane au Quebec hails from Winnipeg and has lived from India to Iqaluit but she and her family call Hintonburg home.