Centaur Theatre valiantly went on with the 24th edition of their annual Wildside Festival this January, with five shows streamed on-line for free. Most of them are around the twenty-minute mark (one show, SKIN, spans several episodes) and are a terrific way for audiences to keep in touch with what Montreal theatre artists are up to, and for those artists to keep their creativity alive in these dark and isolating times. Although most of the shows are no longer available as of tomorrow (Jan. 23), I thought it might be useful to contribute some kind of a record for the sake of posterity. *
(*Quick update. All shows now available to Jan. 31)
Please note that on Jan. 30 & 31, you can catch Catalyst@Centaur, a showcase of new works, available through Centaur’s website. SKIN (of which more later) will also be available until Jan. 31.
The Whiteface Cabaret is a spinoff of Todd Houseman and Lady Vanessa Cardona’s 2018 Fringe hit, Whiteface, which saw the two Indigenous performers use white face paint and masks to portray white people portraying Indigenous characters. A previous film version of Whiteface, which you can see here, gives some idea of the lacerating satire of the original stage show which had some audience members huffily exiting in protest at what they saw as reverse racism.
This version, specially created for Wildside seems, by comparison, a lot more good-natured, certainly less focused. Understandably, given the let’s-put-on-a-show exigencies of this year’s Wildside, it’s considerably less slick than the carefully crafted film version.
Standing before a showbizzy maroon curtain, the masked couple (Houseman in toothsome twit persona, Lady Cardona haughty and theatrical) play it up for a tough crowd, the constituent members of which are also played (I think) by the duo in various masks and costumes.
In lieu of a real audience, the pair have only the camera to bounce off, so the would-be cabaret atmosphere falls a little flat. You can imagine this aspect of the show taking off had the usual vocally supportive Wildside audience been there. As it turns out, ad-libbing these sections rather than writing some solid dialogue maybe wasn’t the best way to go.
Elsewhere, Houseman and Cardona inventively adapt to the constrained performance circumstances, hitting the road with the aid of projected images as the performers make their way across Canada to rendezvous for show time. The magic of editing transforms one of the audience members into a ravenous wolf creature whose appetite is a metaphor for insatiable consumerism.
There are also three guest spots — potted films exploring the personal experiences of fellow performers from various ethnic backgrounds – Andy Assad bonding with his Lebanon-born dad through a shared love of tough-guy movie icons; Ben Gorodetsky reflecting on his Jewish-Canadian background while precariously perched on the edge of a metal tower; and Sara Maleika unnervingly relating the story of a British Empire atrocity in Egypt in the form of a children’s storytime session.
Sophie El Assaad’s name seems to be everywhere these days, mostly as one of Montreal’s busiest costume designers, but also as an emerging writer. Add to those accomplishments, filmmaker, as evidenced by her Wildside piece, Leila: The Black Balloon, an evolution of her contribution to last September’s Portico Project at Centaur.
Adapted from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent classic Le Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, it melds the Christian context of the original story to the Muslim identity of its eponymous character, Leila, who is persecuted by unseen judges, not just for her beliefs but also, it seems, for her very existence. As with Dreyer’s signature style, the camera lingers on faces — those of Maria Marsili playing Leila and Meagan Schroeder playing Jeanne — in various stages of fear, sorrow and beatified ecstasy. But there’s also a touch of Kubrick as the image shifts to the looming presence of the black balloon in a stark white environment, clear echoes of the black monolith in 2001 A Space Odyssey. Like that object, the black balloon has a cosmic significance as it transforms into the glitter-bedaubed face of Chadia Kikondjo who, departing from the textual borrowings from the Dreyer film, intones a burst of poetry reflecting on the awesome power of light and blackness.
It’s a beautifully constructed piece, often aching with sadness (the Bach soundtrack certainly helps with this mood) but waxing towards a climactic flourish of spiritual bliss. A minor quibble is that the frequent use of intertitles borrowed from Dreyer’s film sometimes seems a touch overdone: such is El Assaad’s instinctive feel for the right image, I wondered if the piece might be even more powerful had she trusted more to a sense of mystery and ambiguity.
Night Cow also feels a little overburdened by text — again, inherent in that criticism is a recognition of the creativity of the imagery. Adapted from Moon Cow Theatre Co’s dance-and-spoken-word Fringe show, it uses exuberant shadow puppetry to recreate Jovette Marchessault’s poetic 1979 Quebecois Inidigenous story about a calf and her mother.
As with El Assaad’s show, the simplicity of the central image belies the intoxicating cosmic implications as mother and child go tripping across time and space. A murder of crows in the tundra; the circle of life; the agony and ecstasy of existence; the transformation of beasts of burden into embodiments of spiritual yearning; an almost erotic intermingling of mother’s milk with the Milky Way– all this is captured in the colorful, sometimes ominous, sometimes playful puppet imagey. Eléonore Lamothe’s bilingual narration certainly matches the passion of Marchessault’s poetry, but too often I felt that its telling was surplus to the requirements of the shadow puppetry’s showing.
One show that clearly couldn’t stint on the spoken word is Greg MacArthur’s 453 St. François-Xavier, a purely audio experience played on a black screen. That title, of course, refers to the address of Centaur Theatre which, in the past, was Montreal’s stock exchange building. Rather than dipping into Centaur’s history, though, MacArthur postulates on its future, his sci-fi sensibility expanding in lavish imaginings as the years clock up into the thousands.
Beginning with what at present does kind of feel like a fanciful future, namely a semblance of post-pandemic normality, MacArthur takes us on a journey that’s fleet-footed in time but stationary in space — hovering over the Centaur’s location as it’s transformed, variously, into an Ubisoft base, a refugee camp, an underwater ruin and much more.
A sense of the arc of time is also embodied in the narrators themselves (Julian and Marlowe Bardesono Fraser and Lesley Macauley) who range from childhood to maturity, while Jesse Ash’s sound design provides a truly haunting aural universe.
It’s suggested that audiences experience this “show” through isolating headphones and resist the temptation to use it as background entertainment while getting on with household chores. That’s sound advice, as it provides an oasis of calm reflection — and, yes, some trepidation about possible futures — in the midst of these mad times.