written by Ian Huffam
Le Long de la Principale (Down Main Street) has a lot going for it: a charming script, talented young actors, a set that is both minimalistic and pretty, and a director who has been able to articulate a sophisticated use of space despite the scarcity of scenic elements. The all-around strength of this production sets an excellent example for professional-level English-language theatre in Ottawa, because certain elements that worked to this production’s advantage are curiously absent from the regular programming of a lot of theatre companies in the English theatre scene here.
First things first, while I wouldn’t say that Le Long de la Principale is life changing, I would say that it deals with an issue everyone has to face eventually (i.e. the death of one’s father) in a way that captures both the required sequence of events pertaining to funeral rites while also presenting the most important facet of this experience, namely the disbelief that the parental figure has passed. The individual elements that comprise this production are all strong on their own terms, but together they produce an impressive piece of theatre certainly worth talking about.
I’m eternally grateful that the team at La Nouvelle Scène provided English surtitles for the performance I saw, with a translation provided by uOttawa Theatre graduate Lisa L’Heureux (the uOttawa connection, as you’ll see, is a running theme throughout this production). For those who do not fluently speak French, the decision to continue having select performances with English surtitles is a great way to make French theatre more accessible for Anglophone audiences.
Lui (Him) lives in St. Icitte (Heretown). We meet Lui the morning after his father has “disappeared”, on the kitchen floor,ile he knocks repeatedly on the door of Lamy (Pal) for condolence, guidance, company… the sort of things you need in this situation. Looking on is Leress Dumond (Evryone Elss).
The Symbolist and Expressionist nature of this script should already be obvious. Besides a meditation on losing a parent, Steve Laplante’s script is also partly an indictment of the inescapable aspects of life in a small town, namely gossip and the seeming impossibility of leaving. It’s not quite as blatant as the medieval morality plays (Everyman, anyone?) that originated this kind of universal drama, but director Jean Stéphane Roy combines both stereotypical character traits with more individualized ones, to varying degrees depending on the character, in order to balance the more abstract ideas in the text.
Jonathan Charlebois and Caroline Lefebvre as Lui and Lamy portray their characters as the typical young man and woman respectively, the former being confused, disbelieving, and desperate for hope, while the latter opinionated, strong, and unyielding for her friend – perfectly understandable in their situations. The other actors – Alexandre Gauthier and Lissa Léger- portray the remainder of the characters and blend a clichéd humour (as Lafamille, Léger dons a grotesquely oversized mourning veil that renders her Cousin Itt-like in appearance) with an unexpected depth. Most notably, when Mononc’, who is a silly clown and always cracking a bad joke no matter how inappropriate, suddenly enters into a man-to-man conversation with Lui about what it means to ‘break’ emotionally before going his own way.
The design elements are also quite strong – the set by Ben Thibodeau mostly focuses around a bisected circular platform with a narrow runway running left-right between the two halves, which lends itself beautifully to the themes of this play, particularly when Lui goes to the edge of town so that he can be “ailleurs” (somewhere else), and has to cross the border (here represented by the runway). They are further exemplified by the movement down the titular street wherein the actors merely walk around the platform in circles, as if aimlessly wandering down the main drag of their small town.
Thibodeau’s set also features a latticework of sky-painted beams in the background behind the circular platform, and the lighting by Benoît Brunet-Poirier impressively continues the lines of this latticework into the darkness above and around the stage. Additionally, a cut out of the skyline of the fictional town wraps around the rear half of the platform, and toward the end of the play is silhouetted to create the illusion of Lui standing in the countryside with the town in the distance – a beautiful moment indeed.
Le Long de la Principale, as I said above, has a lot going for it – and we on the English side of things could learn a lesson or two from it. The first of these things is the uOttawa connection I mentioned earlier: With the exception of Gauthier, who has appeared in several productions at the uOttawa Department of Theatre, the entire cast are graduates of that Department, and those who graduated all have done so in the last few years. Lighting designer Brunet-Poirier, Assistant Stage Manager Lindsay Tremblay, and Production Manager Kyle Ahluwalia are also graduates, and director Roy has spent many years teaching acting and directing at the Department on the French-language side. All in all, 7 of the 13 credited names on the “Équipe de Création” page in the program are graduates/teachers at the university’s Theatre department (not counting Alexandre Gauthier, who has appeared in both French and English shows there as well).
Why do I comment on this? Well, there seems to be a bit of a gap, in English-language theatre in Ottawa, between graduating from theatre school and actually being able to make any kind of mark on the local theatrical scene. Of the major professional-level theatre hubs in Ottawa (by that I mean the Arts Court, the Gladstone, and the GCTC, and the NAC), the place where you are most likely to see people who have graduated from the Department of Theatre or any other theatre school in the last 5 years is Arts Court, where most productions are run on a not-for-profit basis and its major events are Ottawa’s most prominent theatre festivals (Youth Infringement, Ottawa Fringe Festival, undercurrents, and Fresh Meat DIY Theatre Festival) as opposed to regular seasons of programming. In no way is this meant as a slight against Arts Court, because festivals are a very necessary part of the theatre scene and the experimental nature of a lot of the shows that go up at these festivals help to push artistic boundaries. It would be nice, however, to see possibilities for younger artists within the regular programming of local theatres at a professional level.
It’s unfair to demand this of the local scene without gaining some understanding of how the theatre hubs themselves are set up – Théâtre la Catapulte is just one of 4 resident companies at La Nouvelle Scène, a structure that doesn’t really exist at the English hubs (with the argument that the Gladstone runs somewhat similarly). Therefore, I intend to make a larger study of the three hubs in Ottawa – Arts Court, the Gladstone, and Great Canadian Theatre Company. All three operate under different management structures, which can affect the programming that they offer. One thing that I intend to focus on is the trade-off between inventive, challenging programming and the kind of programming that will actually see the company make a return on their investment – clearly this is a debate that artistic directors/programming coordinators have to grapple with each season, and I expect each person I talk to will have a different perspective on how to approach it.
In the next few months you can expect to see some lengthy articles, each one focussing on one institution (Arts Court will be first). I intend to look at several different factors – which companies control each venue and the artistic mandates of those companies, the history of each company/venue, the model on which each company/venue uses/rents their space, and especially opportunities for emerging artists come to mind first off – in order to create perhaps a clearer profile on all three of these artistic centres. By taking this on I hope to not only gain a greater understanding of how the local professional English theatre scene is structured but to also make this information accessible to the public sphere. Whether or not anyone finds it helpful, the possible discoveries made by this project might be useful in discussing potential change for the future. It’s all up in the air now, but you’ll be hearing from me soon.
Le Long de la Principale
A Théâtre la Catapulte production
Written by Steve Laplante
Directed/Adapted by Jean Stéphane Roy
Starring Jonathan Charlebois, Alexandre Gauthier, Caroline Lefebvre, and Lissa Léger
Set Design by Ben Thibodeau
Lighting Design by Benoît Brunet-Poirier
Costume Design by Isabelle Filion
Sound Design by Venessa Lachance
Assistant Stage Manager: Lindsay Tremblay
Stage Manager: Pascale Lemay
Production Manager: Kyle Ahluwalia
Surtitles: English Translation by Lisa L’Heureux
Adaptation and Manipulation by Renée Villemaire
At La Nouvelle Scène
February 25-March 4, 2016