Montreal fest speaks through image

Event combining two previous festivals

MONTREAL — The inaugural Festival TransAmeriques, which ran May 23-June 7, offered a bracing dose of cutting-edge theater and dance.

An amalgam of two previously existing Montreal festivals — Festival de Theatre des Ameriques and Festival Intl. de Nouvelle Danse, which went bankrupt in 2003 — the FTA is clearly geared toward audiences with at least a working knowledge of French.

Fest’s headline theater event was local hero Robert Lepage’s latest large-scale group work, “Lipsynch,” which clocked in at five hours-plus but in its completed form will last nine hours. As with Lepage’s ’90s epic “The Seven Streams of the River Ota,” the production weaves together multiple narratives, locations and languages to tell stories of lives connecting via chance and fate.

The central theme — the relationship between voice, speech and language — is satisfyingly explored in the production’s opening sections, in which Lepage’s famed ability to use visual and physical stagecraft to communicate powerful emotional content is on fullest display. Coherence suffers as the evening wears on, however, and complicated set shifts hinder aud interest.

There’s also a troubling disconnect between a belief system based on fatalistic determinism and the invocation of concerns like human sexual traffic, which seem to signal — but do not deliver — social and political engagement. Production doubtless will change considerably before its scheduled full-length outings next year in Edinburgh and London.

Among fest imports, Romeo Castellucci confirmed his rep as contemporary theater’s most audacious and inventive image-maker with his meditation on women and femininity, “Hey Girl!” From the opening tableau of an amorphous mass of pink goo slowly revealing a naked female form underneath, to the seemingly spontaneous shattering of multiple hanging panes of glass, to a dancing, nude black woman covered in reflective silver paint, Castellucci sutures together a series of how-the-hell-does-he-do-that moments with gut-shaking sound design by Scott Gibbons.

Nothing resembling a narrative emerges, but the accumulation of images communicates layered messages about women’s struggle against objectification throughout history. Why is Castellucci’s brilliant work not seen Stateside more frequently?

As playful as “Hey Girl!” is intense, Rimini Protokoll and Theatre Basel’s “Mnemnopark” features four real-life retirees and one younger actress on an imaginary tour of Switzerland via an elaborate model train set. Like the switchbacks on the tiny train’s route, the production functions through unexpected shifts of perspective: Video images projected on a screen initially look like the Swiss countryside — until a huge face looms in the background and we remember it’s only a simulation.

Stories of the older performers’ displacement during WWII and of more recent disruptions to the Swiss rural economy encourage auds to read the production for its documentary value, which is then undercut by wacky passages of Bollywood-style dance. Though slightly over-enamored of its own cuteness, “Mnemnopark” is nonetheless a mind-bending theatrical joyride.

The fest’s standout English-language offering was Toronto-based Necessary Angel’s “Eco Show.” The title may brace auds for something preachy about climate change, but author and co-director (with Chris Abraham) Daniel Brooks anticipates and undercuts prejudices: The ecosystem in question is a single family, whose troubled relationships become a subtle metaphor for the troubled planet. The skillful use of projections and sound design, coupled with beautifully detailed writing and acting, combine to create a fresh version of theatrical naturalism.

New Quebec writing was represented by “CHS,” written, directed and performed (along with two other actors) by Christian Lapointe, an exciting young talent with a disturbing story to tell. CHS is the French-language acronym for spontaneous human combustion, an apparent obsession of Lapointe, a former circus performer gravely injured in a fire-eating accident years ago.

The juxtaposition of slick projections, bravely static staging and compelling subject matter communicated through a central monologue make for a haunting short evening.

Montreal-based director Denis Marleau took the fest’s theatrical experimentations to their furthest extreme with “Fantasmagories Technologiques,” the blanket title for three short plays by Jon Fosse, Beckett and Maeterlinck executed through the projection of video recording of actors’ faces and voices onto stationary dummies. It is a hugely unsettling experience to watch theater knowing that no live actor needed to turn up that night in order for the show to happen.

Theater without actors? It is the value of festival environments such as the FTA that auds are allowed the imaginative space to contemplate such seeming impossibilities.

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