By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
There’s a certain heat-seeking rom-com engine driving Simone et le whole shebang, the raucous, tart-tongued season-opener at L’UniThéâtre, Edmonton’s francophone theatre. At the centre is an unexpected encounter between two hostile, elderly characters, who are up against the ravages of time and place.
Jessy is an old New Brunswick Acadian, a singer/songwriter who’s spent 35 body-breaking years working the Alberta oil patch, and paid the price in mobility. Simone is a Montreal actor whose star has faded, dimmed by the encroachments of Alzheimer’s. And they’re battling on foreign soil, so to speak — in Fort McMurray, in a care facility.
The play, by Quebec’s Eugénie Beaudry, isn’t kidding about “le whole shebang.” The mind-body duality is just the start of it, in a play that embraces dreams, aging, memory, choice vs. compromise, east vs. west, free will, assisted death, jobs and the economic downturn, the generation gap.… It’s possible that a partial shebang might be more workable and feel less scrambly, in truth; Simone et le whole shebang spreads itself widely (and thin).
It relies on vivid performances for impact, and it gets them in Vincent Forcier’s entertaining production, which fluidly moves through the intricacies — and Brianna Kolybaba’s atmospherically rustic design, lit by Larissa Pohoreski — in a strikingly artful way. In many ways, the play is about the opening and shutting of doors. And the design and Forcier’s stagecraft are as punctuated by that as any door-slamming farce.
Jessy (André Roy) is haunted by his party-hearty younger self (Gaetan Benoit), a singing cowboy who delivers a melancholy song about aging, poverty, and underachievement at the top of the show. He’s come to the West, age 35, to make some quick money. And “quick” turns out to be measured in decades. He surveys the wreckage of his older self with a mixture of pity and exasperation, and annotates accordingly.
Simone (Crystal Plamondon) is haunted too — by past glories and the actor’s nightmare of not remembering her lines. Her memory works in fits and starts, a process of fleeting confusion captured beautifully in this smart performance. Which is why her daughter (Nicole St. Martin), a brisk transplanted Montrealer working in Fort McMurray and struggling with a failing marriage, has re-located her mother to the wild west.
The daughter is haunted by her neglectful husband, a presence via his voice on the phone, and the absence of children in their marriage. And the play drifts towards her resolution, gathering steam and invective.
Simone et le whole shebang is playful about stereotypes, and deals in them. And the performances in Forcier’s production flesh them out in 3-D. As Jessy the elder — prickly, raspy-voiced and vigorously foul-mouthed in a ripe conglomeration of both of our official languages — Roy is a charismatic presence. “That’s how I roll, bitch,” he says to Simone, bragging about his prodigious archive of lovers. “Chicks are like jobs; I’ve done them all.”
The latter, whose grip on reality is variable (ditto her feelings about the facility), is remarkably unassailed by the assault of Jessy’s cockiness and language. “Eat shit,” she says with surprising calmness. “I’m not lost; I’m jet-lagged.” Plamondon’s comic timing is impeccable; it invariably includes a thoughtful pause before she volleys back.
Gradually, the two old characters come to appreciate each other — for their waywardness, for their losses, for their morbid humour. “You’re a flower growing in a field of shit,” Jessy says to Simone. Surprising developments, and laughter, ensue, to be deliberately vague. And the actors commit to a variety of comical moments.
In young Jessy, Benoit creates a character fuelled by sardonic humour and disappointment. St. Martin is forceful as the daughter, harried by her mother’s resistance, by anxiety turning into panic, by the knowledge that her domestic future is gradually eluding her grasp.
The invasion of French by English phrases, in a land where francophones are the minority, has a bright startling colour palette. “Ils sont gone,” says the young Simone later in the play. “Un monumental fuck you.” There’s something irresistibly western Canadian about that. And this is the week to appreciate L’UniThéâtre’s bold, gutsy, cross-country choice.
Simone et le whole shebang
Written by: Eugénie Beaudry
Directed by: Vincent Forcier
Starring: André Roy, Crystal Plamondon, Gaetan Benoit, Nicole St. Martin
Where: La Cité francophone, 8627 91 Street
Running: through Oct. 26. In French, most performances with English subtitles