Reviewed by on    Theatre in Ottawa and the region.  


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