Thursday, September 22, 2011

Review: (Montreal) Cantate de guerre

Paul Ahmarani in Cantate de guerre at Théâtre d'Aujourd'hui (photo: Valérie Remise)

The Smallness of Atrocity
Can theatre do justice to the horrors of war?
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois

Cantate de guerre is the second play by Larry Tremblay I have seen this year - the other being his iconic Dragonfly of Chicoutimi - and I am starting to wonder if Tremblay is even a playwright and if these two pieces are even plays.

There is no doubt of several things: Tremblay has a way with dense, surprising ideas (Dragonfly was about a man who comes out of a coma and can only speak English, a language he does not know); he can turn a phrase with the best of them; his language is a hybrid between prose and verse, reminiscent of Walt Whitman (forgive me - I waded through Leaves of Grass this summer)—you bathe in Tremblay's words, are hypnotized by them and, quite often, drown in them.

But in both the previous outing and Cantate (and in my own reading of Dragonfly and Tremblay's Ogre) those ideas, words and language stay hopelessly bound to the page. They do not breathe life into characters (mostly because they are adamantly not human dialogue). They do not paint pictures in your head; instead, they propose ideas, bits of dogma, wisps, sometimes, of banality.

And that is precisely why Cantate de guerre falls to pieces about ten minutes into its interminable 65. It sings, descants, intones, ululates and prettifies the atrocities of war (the ones we read of where we can barely believe they are committed by humans). It removes the blood and guts of the acts committed and renders them in loving sweeps of sound; it is angels singing, not women and children screaming.

Yes, there is a warlord (played, flailingly, by the usually-brilliant Paul Ahmarani) and a son (Mikahaïl Ahooja doing I'm-not-sure-what) and there is a chorus of murderous goons with machetes and chains and iron bars which double as musical instruments. And the set by Anick La Bissonière and lighting by Claude Cournoyer are lovely and full of geometry. But war, someone might have told director Martine Beaulne, is not parallels and angles. It is broken lines, broken lives, broken minds, broken bodies.

And because it may not even be possible to present that on a stage without trivializing it, it might be a better idea to stay away from it or, at least, make the evening something more (or less, perhaps) than a pretentiously pretty ersatz cantata.

Finally, at the core of all the problems with this piece, is the clear indication that no one knew what to do with it. Perhaps they were afraid of the subject matter (as who wouldn't be!). But I think it is more because of this: what can the best theatre artists in the country do with a work if it is not theatre.

Cantate de guerre is at Théâtre d'Aujourd'hui until October 15.

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