North to the Avant-Garde


MONTREAL—A stolid North American city with a Gallic soul, Montreal enjoys its quiet reserve as much as its wildness—a combination that makes it one of the world’s most popular cities for conventions and arts festivals. Apparently, the bare-all strippers are as reliable as the trains. The bistros aren’t bad either, particularly those with a Portuguese bent. Canada’s answer to Paris also boasts one of the more adventurous theater audiences. Those who turned out for the Festival de Théâtre des Amériques, a two-week international banquet of avant-garde performance that closed on Sunday, were diverse in age, language, and aesthetic. What united them was an appetite for theatrical innovation, a pioneering sensibility that seemed by no means peripheral in this bilingual town, where the conventional and unconventional coexist as naturally as English and French.

The highlight was a French Canadian offering, though not Robert Lepage’s remount of his 1987 epic La Trilogie des Dragons—a nearly six-hour marathon housed in an abandoned factory that served as a catalog of the best (luminous stage effects) and worst (New Age sentimentality) of this renowned Quebec auteur. No, the festival’s true pièce de résistance was Problématique Provisoire, a multimedia movement-theater work conceived and performed by Montreal’s Julie Andrée T. and an ensemble of daringly nimble collaborators from film, dance, theater, and the visual arts. (New York audiences may recall Andrée T. from En Français Comme en Anglais, It’s Easy to Criticize, presented at P.S.122 in 2001.) At times raunchy in its sights and smells, Problématique Provisoire managed to transcend its sweaty gimmicks (including full frontal nudity, a multi-person open-mouthed kiss, and even a group urination) to provisionally interrogate aspects of experimental performance. The problem-set under investigation ranged from the erotics of gestural poetry to the limits of shock as a vehicle for the new.

To see the piece one had to crawl beneath the stage, where some of the acts were performed. There were no seats or assigned places. Audience members milled freely in the two-tiered space, granting the performers sufficient room while enjoying as close proximity as natural modesty would allow. Scrolled on a board was an itemized list of actions; each time one was completed a line was crossed through it. “Exchanging Identity” had the actors stripping down to their birthday suits and trying on each other’s clothing. “Plane Crash” involved holding a one-legged position until one of the cast members torpedoed herself onto the floor. “Walking in the Sky” featured a naked woman sliding along a celestial blue string that cut into her privates. “Dactyl” revolved around the taking of video photographs of the actors—a segment that was later duplicated with the audience, in another boundary-blurring gesture.

Sound like a bunch of stunts? So thought a prominent American theater critic who argued over a boozy dinner afterward that there didn’t seem to be much rationale in crouching on all fours to watch an actor walk with her hands and feet in giant coffee cups. Point taken. Yet the ensemble’s dancer-like discipline and formal finesse (especially noted in the fluidity of its environmental staging) made it impossible for me to dismiss Problématique Provisoire as clichéd avant-garde indulgence. The production provided compelling research into the nature of cultivated artistic bodies in theatrical space—and our inherently leering relationship to them as spectators.

Another strong contender in the festival’s 20-plus offerings was üBUNG, a production from Belgium’s Victoria company by director Josse de Pauw. It set up an interesting artistic challenge: Can theater compete with film? In the background, a black-and-white movie of a bourgeois dinner party is screened, while in the foreground a company of child actors take turns acting out the adult roles. The dramatic situation tracks the artistic pretensions, sexual duplicity, and all-out aggression of the well-heeled grown-ups—in a stilted manner that’s always conscious of the fact that adults frequently act more childish than kids. Though the suave direction treated the interaction between the two media as a kind of musical composition, the film visually overpowered the theatrical activity, rendering it as marginalia to the satiric feature. Score another one for the movies, though the stage’s loss still made for elegant viewing.

Ojos de Ciervo Rumanos, a mythic Argentinean drama written and directed by Beatriz Catani, strips the theatrical experience to its fundamental essence: the actor’s conviction in the truth of the stage moment, no matter how loopy. The story revolves around a woman who has failed to sexually mature under her father’s guardianship. Though he plants her in a variety of clay pots, presses oranges onto her eyes and genitals, and squeezes fruit juice down his arm and into her mouth, she doesn’t flower into the woman she has chronologically become. Instead, she undergoes more of her father’s intrusive ministrations, while receiving intermittent visits from a young man who plays records of singing voices that may be the missing mother she mourns for.

Though the piece can be read as political allegory for the aridity of a society no longer able to nourish its young, its effectiveness lies in the way surreal action is portrayed with naturalistic exactitude. As the daughter Dacia, Paula Ituriza lends emotional ballast that keeps the strange saga from becoming abstract. Her grief is always particular, even when its object is uncertain. Along with Ricardo González Padre and Blas Arrese Igor, as the father and sibling-like companion respectively, Ituriza movingly realizes Catani’s ritual of loss—the oldest form of theatrical provocation and still the freshest.