Evelyne de la Chenelière, born in 1975, is something of a prodigy. She has written nearly fifteen plays all of which have been produced, and in 2006, she won a Governor General’s Award for her play Désordre public (2006). In 2007, the French theatre of the National Arts Centre brought in a production of her very moving monologue Bashir Lazhar (which is apparently being made into a film at this moment) about an Algerian immigrant who comes to Canada, finds a job as a teacher and tries to explain to his students, – i.e. the audience – the problems of an outsider such as himself trying to integrate into this country.
The production was not only beautifully directed and acted but it appeared very relevant at the moment when questions of immigration in Europe and problems in the Middle East were, and are still having very direct consequences on our North American societies. Mlle de la Chenelière seems to have a gift for expressing the most intimate and delicate of sensations without becoming maudlin or too sentimental, at times even giving in to a sense of humour that is most refreshing.
Strawberries in January (Les Fraises en janvier) written in 1999 when Chenelière was only 23 has just opened at the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre in a translation by award winning playwright Morwyn Brebner. The Great Canadian Theatre Company production, directed by Lise Ann Johnson, makes one wonder about the obvious problems involved in moving from one language to the other, where an appropriate translation of the text does not necessarily guarantee that the stage representation will capture the essence of the play.
A rather bubbly foursome, François, Sophie, Robert and Leah, have their lives set out before us in a film scenario imagined by François (Pierre Simpson) who is trying to create a movie that will help him win back his girlfriend Sophie (Sarah McVie). He is madly in love with Sophie (they are cohabiting by the way), but she is still experimenting with her life and with multiple relationships, and enjoying her freedom in a slightly neurotic way.
François’ good friend Robert (John Koensgen) is an older, more mature person from France, so we are told, even though nothing in this English stage version suggests he is not Canadian. Robert, who used to teach literature at the University of Montreal, is desperately trying to meet women. He’s had an anonymous adventure with Leah (Annie Lefebvre) , a lonely woman who runs a bed and breakfast in the country and dreams of another life.
All of this of course is simply François’ version of the film script he is preparing and to make it very clear, François steps in and out of his role as François the young man who runs a bar in downtown Montreal, to become the narrator telling us his storyline, or to become the filmmaker, showing us how he is setting up his film shots. Since this is supposed to become a movie, the different sequences of the play appear to be edited seamlessly in order to show the movements back and forth in time. We get the impression that various events take place simultaneously, as they would in a film. It is very clear that the presence of a film related imagination is very strong here – and very interesting, but this is what the director seems to have missed.
The scenario develops rather quickly as the members of this foursome meet at different moments.There is a moment as Leah becomes pregnant and comes to Montreal to seek out her friend Sophie and try to locate the father whom she doesn’t know but who turns out to be Robert. The play develops as it untangles the complexities of their lives while no one admits to anything as they all pretend to be what they are not. Such games are what keep the narrative flowing , and it isn’t until the very end that they suddenly all realize that happiness was in fact right in front of them.
This is definitely not a soap opera because the cinema-like form allows for enormous amounts of stylistic playfulness which appears to have been overlooked in the performance. What results is a fluffy, light hearted romance that ends happily ever after and has the audience leaving with a big smile in the middle of a cold winter.
The cinematographic nature of the scenario suggested by projection designers Robin Fisher and Sean Lamothe, had us watching images of Le Plateau in Montreal where it all takes place, projected on a huge screen upstage. Thus it brings to light François’own imagination as a filmmaker. Those bits were fine. However the rest of the set was cluttered with tables and chairs and a high brick wall where shelves of glasses and bottles from the bar apparently reflected the kind of eclectic design one find in certain cafes in the area.
That might be true to life, but not in this supposedly non-realistic film which should have been a lovers’ fantasy resembling a playful montage, perhaps in the style of Jean-Luc Godard, or even one of the earlier films of Claude Jutra. As it was, the stage was cluttered and the set appeared to weigh too heavily on the whole piece. More astute blocking with some simple but well placed lighting would certainly have done the trick, along with a better choice of music instead of the sounds of an old Parisian vintage accordion which made no sense at all in this so very Quebec quarter of Montreal.
Those choices obviously weighed heavily on the acting which was somewhere between sit- com dithering and neurotic babbling. John Koensgen as the more sophisticated Robert who is still searching for the one woman who got away, has a very good scene when he becomes the frustrated professor who finally spits out all his hatred of students, chastising their laziness and stupidity. The pretend film scenario allows him to say all sorts of offensive things he would never be allowed so say in a real classroom, with Robert caught up in his film persona in a most dramatic and comic way. It was a welcome moment that cancelled out his first awkward entrance when he is left standing at the door like a stranger, instead of rushing in and hugging François or shaking his hand.
Though the staging tries to make the Montreal site very clear, the results were sometimes confusing. The title itself tells us that we are in a fantasy world where strawberries, like love, are possible at any time of year, even January. All we have to do is believe or recreate the world so it can happen. The final moments when the fairy tale image on the screen shows them all walking away into never never land of happiness, were fine, but for most of the evening, the fantasy world of François’s film never really left the pages of de la Chenelière’s text.
Strawberries in January plays at the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre, 1233 Wellington St. West (at Holland Ave.) until February 13, 2011. To purchase tickets, please visit www.gctc.ca or call the Box Office at 613-236-5196.
Ottawa, January 31, 2011
This review first appeared on the Toronto site www.scenechanges.com
Listen also to www.cbc.ca/ottawamorning/columnists/theatre