The audience howled and squealed with delight as long strings of “ostie”, “crisse”, and “tabarnak”. “ciboire”, “sacrament”, “viarge”, and “câlisse”, just for starters, rolled off the tongue of four women in Simon Boudreault’s play Brown Gravy that opened Wednesday night at La Nouvelle Scène.
Given the extensive use of intense Quebecois swear words, as well as the extremely graphics images referring to various lower body parts, the evening was expected to irritate a few people. Jean Stéphane Roy, artistic director of La Catapulte who programmed Brown Gravy, told the public they could leave quietly by the side door if they found the language too strong. No one left.
Although such language is what you might expect in a tavern or a pool hall, this all took place on Felix Ruel’s perfectly functional set: a modern industrial kitchen in a school cafeteria. This is where the four characters, spend almost two hours on stage, preparing those “blankety blank” well balanced dishes for the students and the “crisse de profs” who apparently snub these cooks who spend their days sweating in front of the stove, slicing, chopping, dicing, lugging huge trays of edible material back and forth around the kitchen as the nonstop verbal exchanges fill the space and keep us glued to the performances which were all very strong.
The play is divided into five segments each one representing a day of the week, announced in the first moments by the huge menu they parade across the down stage area. This episodic structure and the posting of food titles (Fish and ships!!) might suggest a tweaking of brechtian critical realism however, this is certainly not about social conflict. It’s mainly all about language.
Their speech even goes far beyond the everyday meanings of their street smart vocabulary and the performances highlighted this very clearly. In a way, the text suggests the influence of slam poetry and popular forms of rap. Taking these forms of poetic resistance one step further, playwright Simon Boudreault orchestrated a whole symphony of sounds and rhythms that emphasized the performance rather than the literal meaning of the words and the result is both surprising and very entertaining.
As Armande the “chef cook” rattled off her speeches about being fed up with chopping carrots , about healthy meals, and her fears that Cindy is trying to take over her job, she beefs up every noun with a “religious” adjective and references to a lower body act; all is then highlighted by a judicious selection of vowels and consonants that pump out ear catching rhythms. It was the rhythms that transformed those tough, agitated monologues into a kind of corporeal language which carried you beyond the sense of each word into the realm of a special brand of vocal sound scape.
Each character in fact had her own rhythm, her own tone of voice, her own intensity, her own “feel” and together, they became a magnificent quartet, shifting from duos, to trios, to solo acts or back to quartets. There were long pauses, there was that quiet, almost pathetically plaintive monologue, when shy little Martine (a stammering Catherine Ruel) tells us about her rocky relationship with her husband, and how all woman must go through such mistreatment , as she tries to cover up the vicious wound on her face. There was the sensual Cindy (Marie –Eve Pelletier as a slinky sexbomb) full of her sexual adventures, and the chain smoking Sarah (Anne Paquet seething sadness and repressed anger) who loved picking up the latest gossip and spreading rumours.
Even the big boss Armande who orders them around like a general in her kitchen is a walking time bomb. Played by Johanne Fontaine with the marvellous booming voice that could have lifted the roof off the theatre, she reacts with a desperate energy that responds to all the threats and bad feeling she senses growing around her like dangerous mould in a damp basement. Trying to keep her little family in tow she bursts with a final movement of rage after discovering the ultimate betrayal by her boss, that “gros porc M. Baunier .” That was the last straw which sets in motion her vengeance where a huge cauldron of hot brown gravy plays a central role. There is something almost classical about the structure which in fact could suggest the theatre of Michel Tremblay.
One might say, in fact, that certain dramatic moments do remind us of scenes in Les Belles-soeurs, especially when the women move out of the real world and step alone into the spot light to tell us their sad personal stories. There is however an important difference. Boudreault does not delve deeply into those miserable lives, the way Tremblay does to produce figures we love and hate in their mixture of pathos, humour and real tragedy. Playwright Boudreault is less attracted by the psychology of his characters. He uses them as mouthpieces for his linguistic research, aiming rather at the poetic magic of the “sacre”, the nasty swearword which he has transformed into a truly esthetic experience on stage.
Nevertheless, the effect is not completely sustained because the same words keep returning throughout the performance and we realize after about 70 minutes, that the general vocabulary is very limited. This was the writer’s choice obviously to keep the same words returning over and over again. Even if this is supposed to symbolise the way human communication is breaking down (a notion which has become bit of a cliché these days ), neither the emotions nor the dialogue can go very far given the repetitive nature of the language. Even if it retains its musicality, the repetition eventually diminishes its theatrical effect which made its most powerful impact during the first 70 minutes of the play.
Then, as though the author had foreseen such a reaction, the focus of the play appears to shift near the end, giving us a glimpse of the ladies setting the trap for the moment of truth. The plot thickens; the language loses its importance, and the “brown gravy” takes over.
Nonetheless, this, funny, daring, in your face sometimes even shocking symphony of bad words, takes hold of you, and keeps your attention throughout. It is certainly worth a try, even if it’s just to see Johanne Fontaine sound off as the volcanic Armande. Quite an astounding actress!!
Thursday evening there will be surtitles in English, translated by Lisa L’Heureux (with the help of Kathryn Prince). That must have been a difficult job and it would be fun to see what she does with “crisse”, “ciboire”, “viarge”, “tabarnak” and all the rest! I
Sauce brune (Brown Gravy) continues at the Nouvelle Scène until December 3. Performances are at 20h00. Thursdays show with English surtitles begins at 6pm. For information and reservations call the Nouvelle scène at 613-241-27 27
Ottawa, Alvina Ruprecht
1 December, 2011
Brown Gravy (Sauce brune)
at La Nouvelle Scène
A production of Simoniaques Théâtre (Montréal)
Written and directed by Simon Boudreault
Set by Félix Ruel
Lighting by Frédéric Martin
Hair and makeup by Florence Cornet
Soundscape by Michel F. Côté
Armande, chef cook Johanne Fontaine
Sarah Anne Paquet
Cindy Marie-Ève Pelletier
Martine Catherine Ruel
Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht