By Herménégilde Chiasson, translated by Jo-Anne Elder
NotaBle Acts Summer Theatre Festival
So there's this couple whose marriage is pretty much an empty shell. He's a money-obsessed, insensitive philistine with a wandering eye; she's an educated, sensitive but repressed wife. He's having an affair with a sexy free spirit who's just decided to break it off because she's "met someone." Her brother, a priest, is struggling with the temptations of the flesh in the person of . . . guess who? the stalwart wife.
Sounds a bit soap operaish, doesn't it? But the production of Herménégilde Chiasson's thoughtful script -- elegantly translated by Jo-Anne Elder -- that has been put together by this summer's NotaBle Acts Festival is an enchanting, and even mesmerizing, evening of theatre: a feast for the eyes and ears and surprisingly often a challenge to our minds and to our emotions.
Rarely, in my experience, have the considerable resources of the Playhouse been used so productively to surround and support a script without overwhelming it or its language, without making something delicate and subtle into something larger and coarser. In part, this is a result of using the intimate setting of the backstage space, where the space is smaller but the resources are as accessible: but it is also a result of a tactful deployment of those resources, particularly, in this case, lighting and sound. The soundscape, by the always reliable Mike Doherty, not only set the tone brilliantly at the outset, it also subtly supported the actors throughout -- for instance, the subtle thunderstorm (can there be such a thing? Go to the Playhouse and see) and all the other recorded offstage sounds which often underscored, but never obscured, the action of the play. Mike Johnston's elegantly simple multileveled playing space provided a powerful underpainting for Chris Saad's thoughtful and precise lighting (the offstage lightning for the distant storm, for example, or the way a stained-glass window splashed its colors on the center of the stage in the final scene), which invited us to shift our attention gradually rather than suddenly from one scene to the next, and synchronized with the subtle shifts from one to another of the effective and often lovely back projections contributing to the dreamlike mood of the play.
Those scenes, fourteen of them, each with a floating and floaty surtitle ("Gold and the weight of life," "Despair as a way of life," "Intelligence as an escape system") might have seemed simply one damn thing after another, except for director Emma Tibaldo's elegant shaping and timing of the production. The transitions between scenes were neatly contrived to make the scenes feel connected, to give us the sense of one, whole, slow-motion movement through the play. Regularly, the characters in a scene, as the lights went down on them, devolved into something between mime and dance and slow-motion, and expressed with their bodies the trajectories of the emotions and relationships in the scene, and gradually disappeared as our attention pulled away from them and the lights came up on the next scene. Changes of props regularly were made part of these transitions, as characters carried off a bench as though struggling under the weight of a cross. Made focal, these might have seemed almost silly, but the fact that they were occurring at the periphery of our vision, as we looked for the entrances of new characters, made them part of the whole coherent atmosphere of the production, tying it all together into one dreamlike experience. As the surtitles of scenes appeared on the back projection, voice-over recordings (which, similarly, might have seemed silly but for their part in the transition) introduced scenes with short, poetic meditations on the issues -- "One day we will be vaccinated against thirst," one says, "One day we will take misery in hand / One day we will trade stars for space."
The script itself exhibits a conceptual richness and coherence which don't always translate into dramatic authenticity: the fact that one might think of the four characters as representing the mind, soul, heart and body is a fascinating theoretical concept, and one that bears some thought, but which tends to distance the writer, and us, from the characters. Themes which echo through the play -- money, the heart, thirst and desire, the Acadian experience, tend to connect verbally and poetically rather than in the action of the play. Indeed, the action is minimal: a discovery. The only actual event is that Solange, the betrayed and stoic wife, discovers the affair and meets Gabrielle, and that Paul, the betrayer, is found out. None of the characters change in any dramatic way, and the situation is pretty much the same at the end as it was at the beginning: love, like all our dreams, seems to be primarily a matter of unfulfilled longing. The play is made up mostly of pairs of people discussing their relationships, a dramatic convention I usually do not warm to. My engagement with it was, I think, due more to the production values, and to the commitment, focus and skill of the four actors, than to the script, which is more like a philosophical meditation than a drama -- an interesting one, to be sure, but not one that embodied its ideas in actions. Still, Chiasson's ideas and Elder's translation often produce arresting moments: for example, in the voice-over beginning the climactic thirteenth scene, in which all four characters confront each other:
You will tell me that you didn't know and I will pretend not to know. You will tell me that the suffering has stopped and we will look, together, at the doorway. And when we awake we will pretend that we have dreamed it all. Just as we used to believe, blindly, that life was rich with promises.The four members of the NBActs cast were all strong, coherent, and affecting, and made as much human appeal out of their somewhat theoretical nature as one could ask. Mélanie LeBlanc's Gabrielle was sexy, charming, desperate and passionate; Wally MacKinnon was impressive, strong and contained, as Thomas, her brother, the tormented and tempted priest, who ends the play with a funeral oration in which he proclaims a faith -- "God made this world for us. He made it for us to find a reason to live in it" -- which it's not at all clear he he can make himself believe. Rea Nolan's Solange was a wonderfully solid and sympathetic embodiment of reason. "I have learned to work through my life, rather than live it. To be reasonable," she says in explaining to Gabrielle why she is not angry at her husband's betrayal of her. And Caleb Marshall is as sympathetic as you can imagine a coldly calculating, philandering philistine with an eye to the main chance could be: where we might well have thought that his exposure and the future he faces by the end of the play were just about what he deserves, Marshall's character seemed almost to be as Gabrielle describes him to his wife: "It's wrong to think that Paul deserves your disdain. It's wrong. Paul is someone who hides behind a lot of screens. His tears are very private."
Each of the four characters has, at some point in the play, an extended monologue, a public speech in which the real audience is invited to play their audience. In a way, each speech tells us what we need to know. Paul gives a lecture on investing which turns out to be a rambling account of how he bought a painting as an investment, and concludes that "the world no longer belongs to dreamers and visionaries. The good old days are gone." Gabrielle, who works in a hospital, explains to a group of children about the heart, "the muscle that keeps us alive, but also the part of our body that tells us if we're happy or sad." She concludes, "the brain stops working after just three minutes if the heart isn't nourishing it with blood. So we have to act very quickly." Solange, who may be the brain that is stopping, lectures a class on the Expulsion of the Acadians, and on love, demanding that the students (us, in the audience) respond to her questions: "Do you think love has managed to survive feminism? Or is love something men invented and imposed on women?" And Thomas concludes the play with what is ostensibly a funeral elegy for a parishioner, but may be one for himself, or for an age in which things were simpler: in the good old days (the ones Paul, too, lamented), he says, "everyone was poor and honest, and they believed that their misery would help them to grow." Can we actually, as he says we must, remake the world in God's image? It doesn't, on the basis of the lives of these four lost people, seem likely. Like the characters trapped in Sartre's No Exit, it seems as though things will go on like this forever. "This whole thing is like a nightmare," Paul says. "Maybe it's the beginning of a new dream," counters Solange. But Paul knows: "Either way, we're bound to wake up one day or another."