The Arts

Festival TransAmériques – Theatre

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reviewed by Paula Citron

Festival TransAmériques – Theatre
Microclimats – Theatre Replacement and Emmanuel Schwartz & Olivier Choinière
New Theatre of Riga’s The Sound of Silence
In Montreal


Montreal’s annual international Festival TransAmériques presents cutting edge dance and theatre. The good news about the opening weekend is that there wasn’t a doggie in the bunch. On the other hand, only a couple of shows really turned my crank.

A brave new initiative this year is the cleverly titled Microclimats which featured 13 short works by mostly Montreal theatre and dance artists. The venue was the historic Monument-National with every nook and cranny taken over as ad hoc stages. I managed to fit in two theatre events.

I absolutely adored the clever WeeTube by Vancouver’s Theatre Replacement which took place in Studio Hydro-Québec made up as a cabaret which emphasized the informality. The audience chose various YouTube videos from a list provided by actors James Long and Maiko Bae Yamamoto. After the video was shown, Long and Yamamoto transformed the actual public postings of people’s reactions to the videos into dialogue. These mini-plays, as it were, made for great satire because it showed just how witless chat room chatter really is. The two actors used iPods to access the each blog’s comments which they had previously recorded. (It was just too much to memorize, as Long pointed out.) Long and Yamamoto added to the cynicism of the show by setting their mini-plays in various domestic settings, as if these were conversations happening in the house. For example, as they talked, they made pop corn and baked cookies (which were served to the audience). It was wickedly funny all round because they treated the blog commentary as if the words were serious high art.

Emmanuel Schwartz’s Rapécédaire was just plain pretentious. About a dozen young people, functioning as a Greek chorus, performed hip-hop moves and recitation, while the lead actor self-indulgently navel gazed in the form of a rap, but his poetry was even over dense and elevated, even for Francophones to discern. At various times he was in an inquisition or a confrontation. There were also projections on the screen behind him, not to mention an off-stage singer performing Handel’s Lascia ch’io pianga from the opera Rinaldo, and ancillary Mafioso type characters. The text followed the format of A, B, C, with angst at each letter. The anti-hero was looking for joy and freedom, which he did apparently find, but not until he left most of the audience in tedium. Nothing seemed to gel. The chorus was never allowed to break out and show their talent, for example.

The Sound of Silence is an ambitious 3-hour wordless play by Latvia’s New Theatre of Riga, conceived and directed by Alvis Hermanis. The subtitle is The 1968 Simon & Garfunkel Concert in Riga That Never Took Place, and Hermanis’ premise was to show the struggles of a youth culture locked in a repressive Eastern Bloc country. The costumes and hairdos alone were worth the price of admission.

Fourteen actors recreated the sex, drugs and peacenik preoccupations of the 1960s set to an iconic Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack. The music was very cleverly used. For example, in a scene that showed the awkwardness of youthful communication, the backdrop song was The Dangling Conversation.

The set was five doors leading into shabby apartments, and Hermanis used both naturalism and surrealism to tell his story. The narrative arc began with innocent kissing games, that led to sex, marriage, pregnancy and young marrieds. Hermanis showed his characters’ obsession with American music – the play’s great metaphor – by literally having it become part of the humans. For example, when the women were pregnant, their bulging bellies were the output for S&G songs. If someone touched the stomach, the soundtrack would burst forth. Similarly, when a woman opened a jar, an S&G tune poured out. She then poured the contents on five brides who danced to S&G with passion. The play began as it ended with the same group of characters – two silly girls breaking into people’s apartments, and four men listening illegally to western music.

Hermanis’ genius is in creating ordinary people whose lives not only speak volumes about a specific era, but point to the impact on later generations. Never was the world more optimistic than in the more innocent 1960s, even behind the Iron Curtain. The piece ended with a man (one of the illegal listeners) committing suicide. He, sadly, represented the future.

Festival TransAmériques continues in Montreal until Jun. 6.

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