Being a festival that highlights the experimental, sometimes Festival TransAmériques offers shows that blur the line between finished, polished product and something that feels more like an exercise in performance still being worked out. Fantasia, from Poland’s Anna Karasińska, is one such example. It takes six actors, puts them on an empty set in their everyday clothes and with little idea where the next hour is going to take them. There are no props for them to hang on to (except for a pot of yoghurt). The show unfolds from instructions placidly delivered over a microphone by Karasińska who sits in the auditorium behind the audience.

These instructions range from the mundane (“X is playing a person ashamed to dance to a song he likes”) to the bizarre (“X is playing the tail of a snake”), to the profound (“X is playing a Belgian who is reading about the history of the Congo for the first time.”)

There is scope for these experienced actors to really strut their stuff with some of these improv-style suggestions. Yet Karasińska, it seems, has asked them to do as little as possible. Sometimes, there’s barely the shadow of an emotion crossing their faces, or there’s an almost imperceptible shift in their posture.

Often, it’s reminiscent of the famous experiment by Russian silent film practitioner Lev Kuleshov who filmed a man smiling, then edited the shot next to different images (a seductive woman, food, a child playing), leaving it to the audience to ascribe emotions (lust, hunger, compassion).

Here, the actors’ sometimes minimal responses to Karasińska’s instructions leave the onus on the imagination of the audience to interpret what’s going on inside their heads. For instance, one actor barely alters his expression when he goes from being somebody embarrassed about the word “period” to being a man in a crowded place wearing a suicide vest.

At times, it seems a bit of a fruitless exercise that maybe should have stayed in the theatre laboratory. Despite the short running time (just over an hour) I found myself getting fidgety over what came over as an improv show without the freewheeling fun and dazzling physical comedy of that form, and without the bonding experience of audience suggestions. (One nagging question; if as per her Buddhist influences, Karasińska is rejecting hierarchical structures in theatre, how come she’s the only one with the mic?)

Yet at others it feels like an effective, deceptively simple idea that sometimes reveals depths of sophistication in conception and in performance. Sometimes a deadpan shift in expression yields more laughs than the most polished one-liner or the most spectacular slapstick. There’s an informal charm to the whole thing too. Karasińska begins by telling us that she might get the giggles during the course of the evening. The moment when two of the actors crack up over having to deliver crummy porn dialogue was one particularly delightful moment.

And sometimes Karasińska’s instructions rise to the level of wondrous fables, affectingly performed – the chilling yet funny story of a satanically magisterial snake invoked by the cast casually meandering in line from behind the curtain; the sad tale of a wasp sent by the parents of a child to deliver it to the oblivion of death. The image of that child stepping into a cloud which gets thicker as death claims it is one that is all the more memorable for the simplicity with which it is conjured up.

Directed by Anna Karasińska. Presented by Festival TransAmériques at Centaur Theatre, May 24 to 26, 2019

About Jim Burke, Special to Montreal Gazette

Occasional writings about theatre by Jim Burke, theatre critic of the Montreal Gazette and Montreal-based playwright
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