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aout - un repas à la campagne: truth in a heatwave

meg walker

Meg Walker is a nomadic fiction and non-fiction writer currently based in Vancouver, where she also spends plenty of time making visual art.

It’s only a seven-foot garter snake in a bag, caught because it was busy eating a toad. But it causes a commotion: the glamorous Monique dashes into the house and won’t come out; her brother cruelly forces her fiancé to bond with the men by measuring the beast; and old, ornery Paulette falls half in love with the thing when she puts her finger in the bag and feels its tongue lick her “like a caress.”

Henri Chassé, Annick Bergeron, Août - un repas à la campagne Henri Chassé, Annick Bergeron, Août - un repas à la campagne
photo Rolline Laporte
It’s only a family gathering for a few days in August to prepare for the wedding of Monique (Marie Tifo) and André (Jacques L’Heureux), the second marriage for both. Août – un repas a la campagne takes place on a simple set: the front porch and window-view-only two front rooms of a wooden house in rural Quebec (as the dialogue gradually reveals). This particular afternoon is hot enough to melt reason. As Jean Marc Dalpé’s play progresses, it’s clear that reason – and humour – had been the short fences keeping chaos out of the yard. When these small protections fail, the family can no longer deny that Monique’s niece Louise (Annick Bergeron) has been cheating on Gabriel (Henri Chassé) without taking much care to dissemble. Facing that releases shame, desparation and pain for all of them.

Dalpé, who also acts the part of Simon, emulates Chekhov in several ways. The discussion about whether or not maple sugar trees are a dead-end investment or a chance to strike gold on the Japanese market is, of course, a nod to The Cherry Orchard. Dalpé’s use of casual, chatty conversations to build slowly to explosive moments reminds me of The Seagull, especially the way dialogues bewteen characters overlap. For example, Louise and her mother Jeanne (Sophie Clément) talk distractedly about whether to use a yellow or white tablecloth for the outdoor meal; between comments, Paulette (Jeanne’s mother, played with stiff, curmudgeonly humour by Janine Sutto) insists she would rather have an omelette than pork roast for dinner.

Also, as in Chekhov, these are ordinary people wearing regular clothes and having conversations about nothing particularly pressing. Until, that is, a conversation pushes a character to an emotional peak. Monique and Joseé (Catherine De Léan) – the funny, constantly distracted, lone representative of the youngest generation – have a rambling chat about looking endlessly for something that isn’t where it should be. The exchange is hilarious but also sets the tone for the kind of helplessness several of the characters experience as events unfold. André discusses golf as the healing pathway out of grief for his late wife. Gabriel only talks about home repairs, beer, swimming, the snake, until Louise provokes him by announcing she will go stay with her lover for three days to think about things. In response, he angrily, methodically describes what he’s done on the farm, which he only has rights to through the now-failing marriage, shouting (I paraphrase the translation) “I’m not leaving without getting paid back for those twenty-one years!” The dark undertones of the cagey, carefully lighthearted behaviour in the previous scenes become visible, and this ripple of of understanding backwards through the play yields a sense of empathy.

A three-time Governor General’s Award winner, Dalpé has a strong enough aesthetic to fold Chekhov into his play without being derivative. In the context of the PuSh Festival, which is dedicated to contemporary performance and is willing to take risks with experimental work, it’s interesting to note that August is neither a fusion of forms nor and attempt to invent new theatrical styles. Director Fernand Rainville is thoroughly experienced in shaping award-winning productions and has been a longtime associate with Théâtre de la Manufacture (Montréal), causing national excitement with Howie Le Rookie in 2007 (Théâtre la Seizième, Août’s co-presenters, brought Howie to PuSh that year as well). The actors are popular stage and television players in Quebec; the production at Waterfront Theatre was expert, down to the easily readable surtitles that provide access to anglophones like myself.

Août – un repas a la campagne expands the range of PuSh by including an experience of Canada’s other major language, which is not always easy to find in British Columbia. When traditional theatre is this well done, it can, and does, dig deeply into our psyches – just from a different direction than the bearing experimental performances use. Rather than grabbing us by the ears and throwing us into a world of devilish cabaret, for example, Août sidles up and shows us a snake in a bag that may kiss us or curse us. For me, Août's eight characters were so well-rounded that, the night after the show, I dreamed about three of them as people in other contexts (Monique, André and Louise stranded by a pickup truck on a dusty road). Transformation can come to us subtly.

Théatre la Seizième/A Théatre de la Manufacture, Août, un repas a la campagne, (August - an afternoon in the country) by Jean-Marc Dalpé, director Fernand Rainville, performd by Annick Bergeron, Henri Chassé, Sophie Clément, Jean Marc Dalpe, Catherine De Léan, Jacques L'Heureux, Janine Sutto, Marie Tifo, assistant director Allain Roy, set Patricia Ruel, costume Mireille Vachon, lighting André Rioux, sound Larsen Lupin, english translation Maureen Labonté; Waterfront Theatre, Granville Island, Jan 23-26; PuSh International Festival of Performing Arts, Jan 16 - Feb 3

Meg Walker is a nomadic fiction and non-fiction writer currently based in Vancouver, where she also spends plenty of time making visual art.

RealTime issue #0 pg.

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