Talent shines in dark play
The rule of play for theatregoers attending Café Chantant’s latest production, Franco Ontarian playwright Michel Ouellette’s demanding work, “La guerre au ventre,” is to suspend all preconceptions about student high school plays.
On opening night, April 11, the audience began lining up in the foyer of Alexandria’s l’École secondaire catholique Le Relais expecting to take their seats in the school’s large auditorium.
Instead, to their astonishment, the theatregoers were led down the hallway and through a darkened backstage door to stairs leading up to an intimate performance area on the school’s transformed stage. The space was closed in by floor-to-ceiling black curtains and surrounded on two sides by tiered seating for 120 audience members.
Forced out of its comfort zone by “La guerre au ventre,” the audience witnesses the shattered life of Martin, now living in Alberta, a Franco Ontarian displaced from his Ontario hometown two decades before by the closing of the local pulp and paper mill.
“La guerre au ventre” is a notoriously difficult play exploring uncomfortable themes including identity, family tragedy and the struggle for survival of the French language and culture in Canada.
The piece demands a tour de force from the lead actor playing Martin.
The dialogue-dense and emotionally-charged role was a huge challenge for 17-year-old actor Simmon Tousignant.
Le Relais teacher Mathieu Glaude, Café Chantant’s risk-taking director, at first had one of two other actors in mind when he proposed the play to members of the troupe in June 2017. But when a change of schools and other commitments ruled out Mr. Glaude’s first choices, the lead role of Martin passed to Simmon Tousignant who agreed to trim his many extracurricular activities to devote himself entirely to the difficult role. Simmon triumphs as Martin and absolutely carries the play, his words and body conveying his character's full range of complex emotions and ideas.
Originally written for two actors, Martin and an actress playing multiple roles, Mr. Glaude instead cast his actresses in the multiple roles of Martin’s mother, his mother-in-law, his ex-wife and daughters, and a First Nations woman.
Café Chantant is also about music and new to Ouellette’s play is a score produced by teacher Lyne Besner-Lauzon and director Mathieu Glaude who also plays soaring electric guitar as part of the play’s soundtrack.
The music was conceived by the director and the lyrics were based on words from the play were written by Grade 12 performer Danika Longtin who stands back lit on a platform behind and above the audience. Ms. Longtin is a talented singer and composer with a full, rich voice.
At one point, the entire 11 cast members beat their chests alluding to native drums while Ms. Longtin sings a lament sounding like a traditional First Nations ceremonial song.
Cast members also include Grade 12 students Myriam Quesnel playing Bridget, and Mylène Levert playing the mother Simone, and Nastassja Gendreau playing several roles including Teresa. They and the rest of the superb cast ensnare the audience in the complicated range of emotions in Ouellette’s haunting play.
Special mention goes out to the sound production and lighting crew, Grade 12 students Simon Claude (sound effects) and James Dufour (lighting) who have been manning the Café Chantant control boards since Grade 9 under the guidance of director Mathieu Glaude. This year Mr. Glaude was assisted by teacher Francis Charlebois in his first year with Café Chantant.
The convincingly bleak and stark world on stage was created by teacher José-Line Rioux’s minimalist set design using recycled materials to build the scant mobile scenery properties, a freewheeling sofa made from folded cardboard boxes and two small sliding walls.
Last fall, Michel Ouellette, who won the 2011 Prix MichelTremblay for “La guerre au ventre”, accepted the invitation to come to Alexandria and meet with the cast and answer questions about the play.
The final performance of “La guerre au ventre” takes place tomorrow (April 18), at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available at the door but last week’s productions were sold out so it’s recommended to call the school in advance at 613525-3315.
Le Relais is located at 100 McNab St.
TOUR DE FORCE: The cast and crew of Café Chantant’s “La guerre au ventre.” Below: Simmon Tousignant and Nastassja Gendreau in one of her roles as Teresa.