For the first time ever, the Great Canadian Theatre Company is mounting a bilingual co-production with the hopes of forging new artistic relationships and creative opportunities within the city. Les Passants, written by Luc Moquin and directed by Jean Stéphane Roy, represents an “unprecedented partnership” in Ottawa and is a production you certainly won’t want to pass up.
Now playing at the Irving Greenberg Centre until March 12th, Les Passants is the result of a historic collaboration between two local professional theatre companies, the GCTC and le Théâtre la Catapulte, as part of a larger multi-city creative exchange project launched by Robert Metcalfe (current Artistic Director of Prairie Theatre Exchange in Winnipeg) in 2012. This venture has brought together a Francophone and an Anglophone company in Winnipeg, Edmonton, and Ottawa with the goal of creating three new bilingual plays. Here in Canada’s Capital (with Canada 150 fast approaching), Artistic Directors Eric Coates (GCTC) and Roy (le Théâtre la Catapulte) presented playwright Moquin with the idea of “[opening] up a common space between the city’s two theatrical communities” (‘Playwright’s Message’, Show Program) which have long been isolated from each other. This piece certainly makes a strong case for continued collaboration between Franco and Anglo theatre companies and one can only hope that it will inspire more bilingual work of this calibre.
Les Passants or, “the passers by” is a series of vignettes that are only related by their reflection on how humanity achieves happiness in our technology obsessed world. It shows us a uniquely Canadian experience, though it feels very universal in its exploration of “loneliness and individualism” (‘Director’s Message’, Show Program).Ultimately, there’s a lot to engage with in this production from the text, to the tech, and to the staging; however, its biggest asset is the seemingly limitless audience Les Passants has the potential to tap into: it’s fresh and contemporary; it doesn’t appear to ‘pander’ to any certain demographic; and there’s a good balance between the spoken text and the performer’s physicality for any undecided viewers worried about the language barrier (also: there are English subtitles). All this to say, this is a great opportunity to experience the fusion of two very different theatre practices on one stage.
Director Roy shows an effortless expertise through his mise-en-scéne and this is especially evident in the scene transitions. Something that has always stuck with me from my undergrad (though I’ll be damned if I can remember who actually said it) is the idea that a director leaves their mark in their transitions. What’s refreshing about this particular show is that any and all set changes are built into the previous vignette, so you’re never actually aware that the actors are moving or changing set pieces because it’s become purposeful stage business in another scene in its own scene. Allow me to explain in more detail:
There’s a scene in which a man (played by Yves Turbide) laments over his lost desire for leisurely reading and, while doing this, lays out all of his beloved tomes across the stage floor (note that these books had been stacked ‘skyscraper’ tall in a scene just before that revolved vaguely around infrastructure and development). In the very next scene we witness a triage nurse (featuring a hilarious performance by Mélanie Beauchamp) arguing with an impatient in-patient (har har!) all the while picking up the books individually off of the floor and delivering them to different areas offstage- not unlike an actual triage nurse whose job revolves around continually having to ‘sort’ and organize patients and files. By building motivated blocking in with the set changes, the audience is never needlessly taken out of the production (there are, of course a few ways Roy intentionally breaks the fourth wall but that’s a whole other review).
Aesthetically speaking, the overall design of this show is cohesive and visually engaging. The set design, by Brian Smith, is clean and versatile with the clever installation of six flats, lining stage left and stage right, that operate as wings, doors, and (most impressively) shadow screens. Vanessa Imeson’s costumes are definitely effective in illustrating character and character traits given the briefness of each vignette (and thus the lack of time the audience spends with each character), and I thoroughly enjoyed how all the characters are somehow linked through their blue and yellow garments (though, if you want to get particular it’s actually this really lovely combination of navy blue and mustard yellow) suggesting that even if they aren’t connected by plot/action they are connected by something somehow bigger than they. Adding even more colour and definition to Smith’s monochromatic and minimalistic set is Chantal Labonté’s excellent lighting design and the shadow work, I think, is especially noteworthy.
The physical performance is very enjoyable to watch given its enthusiastic blend of genres from clown to hyper-realism with the actors shifting from each style effortlessly. The ensemble works together beautifully and it’s clear that each individual actor is well balanced in both comedic and dramatic practices. Andrée Rainville is a stand out for me given the range of feelings she’s able to embody through her several characters: deadpan narrator; fed up girlfriend/lover; and dreamy self-isolated social outcast. Perhaps my favourite moment, though, is the scene with the ‘couples’ therapy’ contemporary choreography, where Rainville radically changes the emotion projected through her physical instrument (see: body) in perfect conjunction with sound designer Keith Thomas’ change in music track.
Before concluding, I would like to briefly mention the use of subtitles (translation by Lisa L’Heureux), particularly in one very memorable scene where a woman (Rainville) reveals her double life to her significant other (Turbide). Instead of the subtitles’ usual place above the action (white text on a black background-unassuming and traditional) they are projected onto the upstage cyclorama where they have become highly stylized to reflect the humour of the scene. The grey background with the bold white block font works incredibly well with the acting style of this scene which very much hearkens to the silent film era. I would love to see this trend continue as I found it much easier, as an Anglophone, to reconcile the action on stage with the text being projected (basically meaning: I didn’t have to shift my vision up and down so much). Overall, for those of us who are dependent on subtitles the ‘reading’ becomes better integrated with the physical/verbal elements.
Though they may not be linked by any main protagonist or plot line, the vignettes are related by their portrayal of humanity and our innate desire for human connection in an increasingly isolated world. We watch as the characters continually make failed connections, until a very significant bond is made towards the end of the piece highlighting the importance of and desperate need for empathy and compassion. Les Passants reminds us that even the simplest kindness can have the most profound effect.
It’s a rare opportunity in Ottawa to see such a fruitful collaboration between Franco and Anglo theatre traditions and, if nothing else, Les Passants actually draws attention to the lack of partnerships between these two communities. I’m sure there are many justifiable reasons for this; however, if the relationship between the GCTC and le Théâtre la Catapulte is any indication of the success similar ventures might have, then local companies can now perhaps put some of these fears to rest. Much like the play itself, this production gives me hope for future growth in the Ottawa theatre scene.
By Luc Moquin
Translator: Lisa L’Heureux
Presented by The Great Canadian Theatre Company in coproduction with le Théâtre la Catapulte
Directed by Jean Stéphane Roy
Cast (alphabetical): Mélanie Beauchamp, Benjamin Gaillard, Andrée Rainville, and Yves Turbide
Stage Manager: Tina Goralski
Costume Designer: Vanessa Imeson
Lighting Designer: Chantal Labonté
Assistant Stage Manager: Mathieu Roy
Set Designer: Brian Smith
Sound Designer: Keith Thomas
Playing until March 12th, ticket information can be found at www.gctc.ca