aout – un repas à la campagne: echoes of chekhov

alex ferguson

Henri Chassé, Annick Bergeron, Août - un repas à la campagne

Henri Chassé, Annick Bergeron, Août – un repas à la campagne

Henri Chassé, Annick Bergeron, Août – un repas à la campagne

It seems we’re about to take a stylistic journey into theatre history. Before us is a detailed replica of the front porch of an old Quebec country house. There’s a swing, a few lawn-chairs folded up at one side, a front door screen, windows that look into the rooms, little details like an overturned bucket under the porch. There’s an orange extension cord running out from the house and a power drill sitting on the swing. As the patrons take their seats, an actor walks out and uses the drill to put a new plank in the front steps. Soon we will meet the family that lives in the house, four generations of women and a few of their spouses. They will present nicely layered naturalistic character portraits rich in physical and psychological detail. Cars will honk off-stage, crows will caw.

Actors will wipe away imaginary sweat and present languid bodies oppressed by summer heat. They will speak dialogue that, through a century or more of theatrical convention, we have come to accept as ‘everyday’. The playwright will carefully note the psychological cause-and-effect that motivates each character. And like the 19th century progenitors of this type of play, he will insert a symbolic element (here, a seven foot garter snake) that adds mystery and is the key to unlocking the deeper meaning of the work. It will all be handled rather deftly by actors who have raised their craft to a fine pitch. And I will wonder if we still need naturalism in theatre, and whether I should be at the movies instead.

There’s a distinctly Chekhovian quality to Aout – un repas à la campagne (August: an afternoon in the country) produced by Montreal’s Le Théâtre de La Manufacture, and written by Jean Marc Dalpé. It’s the story of a family whose fortunes, for generations, have been tied to a maple tree plantation which is now failing due to devastation by acid rain. Jeanne (Sophie Clément) the matriarch, is dutifully running the household while trying to keep her daughter Louise (Annick Bergeron) and granddaughter Josée (Catherine De Léan) in line. She also has to keep tabs on her husband Simon (played by the playwright), who has ambitions to make the plantation turn a profit again, but who suffers a heart condition that lays him out when he gets over-excited. Josée, 19, wants to cut and run to start a screenwriting career in the big city. She’s also bulimic, and for that reason Jeanne tries to keep her under a watchful eye. Daughter Louise, married to Gabriel (Henri Chassé), is a realtor having an affair she hopes will be her ticket to California and out of here. Gabriel is a hard working, beer drinking, salt-of-the-earth type, who tries to pull Louise back into their twenty-one year marriage. Grandma Paulette, played by the 86 year old Janine Sutto, an acting legend in French Canada, masterfully provides comic counterpoint to the action with dry jabs and a stubborn refusal to surrender an inch of her hard won peculiarities for anyone else’s satisfaction.

Echoing Chekhov’s rural comedies, the two younger women are dying to get out of this backwater, while Jeanne is doing what she can to keep the family together and to uphold tradition. As we will discover, she will do this even if it means crushing Louise’s spirit and allowing her to be subjected to physical violation. Thankfully, like Chekhov, the playwright gives us plenty of opportunity to laugh at the contortions the characters put themselves through to maintain their sanity in this stifling situation. The predicament becomes positively farcical at times. Louise carries on a playfully seductive phone conversation with her lover right in front of the family and guests. After she leaves, André (Jacques L’Heureux), one of the guests, ineptly tries to comfort Gaby by touching on all the horrible legal and emotional complications he will face after divorce — but hey, at least there won’t be a custody battle, Josée is 19.

André again exemplifies the absurdity of human behaviour when he describes how he overcame the grief of his first wife’s death by playing a few rounds of golf just hours after burying her. While the humour opens things up, and while we’re temporarily seduced by the hopes and dreams of these people, as with Chekhov’s country characters, this family is stuck in an evolutionary dead end. This may be where the symbolism of the snake comes in. After an excited Gabriel shows it off, it escapes, perhaps representing his last chance to save the marriage and/or the family’s last chance to save itself.

I was eventually drawn into the story, mainly on the strength of the acting ensemble, which handled the material effortlessly, tightening and slackening the tension with acrobatic precision. A colleague described Quebec actors as having that rare ability to shift from heightened emotional pitch to casual patter seamlessly. Jean-Denis Leduc, Artistic Director of the company, thinks it’s the result of a Latin culture (French speaking) transplanted to North America. Seems like a fair assessment.

In the tradition of his naturalist forefathers (with nods to plays like The Seagull and Miss Julie), playwright Dalpé serves up a melodramatic ending (something the naturalists were rarely able to resist despite themselves) that returns the family to a disturbing status quo. Despite the strengths of the acting ensemble and the subtle rhythms of the script, Aout borders on museum piece, a homage to a period when naturalism was a subversive theatre movement.

28 January 2008