Centaur Theatre Portico Project Reviews: Part I

Special coverage of the 2020 Portico Project

The premiere of Is there anything else I can do for you? at the Centaur Theatre’s Portico Project 2020 (Photo Credit: Amy Blackmore)

“The show must go on!”, a banner reads at the front of the Centaur Theatre Company’s grand entrance. Quebec has now entered the “orange zone” of the provincial COVID-19 alert system, and even with the threat of another industry lockdown looming before us, Montreal’s theatre community has yet to lose its heart’s pulse.

There is great caution – and gratitude – in attending Friday’s premiere performances of the Centaur’s inaugural Portico Project. Standing alone on one of the 25 designated “social distancing” stickers on the ground is a humbling, thought-provoking experience quite worthy of its own review. Scattered media is present, as are the handful of dedicated audience members who have reserved a free standing spot to witness this original experiment in theatre creation amid crisis.

Kicking off a weekend of Portico marathoning (it almost feels like Fringe-ing) are a mix of three of the six main stage shows in the outdoor arts festival, plus a couple of collateral activities that include an installation piece and a dance flash mob. All are short-duration works, under 20 minutes each (let us spare our artists from creating full-length productions at this moment in time lest a second wave annul their efforts once again).

First on the day’s lineup is Is there anything else I can do for you?, an original piece created by Amy Blackmore, Executive and Artistic Director of MainLine Theatre, the St-Ambroise Montreal Fringe, and the Bouge d’ici Dance Festival. (It is Fringe!). Through text, dance, and movement, performer Maxine Segalowitz presents herself as an artistic conduit for Blackmore’s words and emotions on the Montreal director’s recent experience of undergoing a partial thyroidectomy.

At first donning exorbitant layers of COVID PPE, Segalowitz’s appearance on the front steps of the Centaur and into the bright afternoon sunlight is a striking image that potently captures the Portico’s central theme of “Unpacking”. Both horrific and humorous at sight, a stylized shedding of multiple masks, gloves, and goggles to The Blue Danube then leads to a vulnerable revelation of the raw human underneath. It’s a literal and metaphorical representation of a woman emerging into the open air transformed, anew. Breathing in her fresh skin – fabulous and at once fragile – Maxine-as-Amy imparts her unforgettable moments this year at the hospital: the invasiveness of surgery, the all-present fear, and the music that often oddly underscores life’s memories. How peculiar the details we retain on the brinks of consciousness. It’s a touching piece that is made all the more poignant in thinking of Blackmore’s ongoing real-life recovery to speak again.  

Next on the day’s programming is COVID vs menopause, a comical solo show written and performed by Dayna McLeod on the challenges of navigating pre-menopausal life during a pandemic. “Is it a fever or is it hot flash?”, she muses as she recounts the overlapping symptoms and side effects shared between the coronavirus and diminishing levels of estrogen. Through a form of stand-up and storytelling, the quadragenarian explores her relationship to her changing body and with her significant other during quarantine, openly sharing her often conflicting needs when it comes to touch, intimacy, and sex. It’s funny, it’s light, it’s cheeky – a provocative and pleasant early evening act to keep spirits going.

The Red Phone – an immersive theatre installation at the Portico Project (Photo credit: Camila Fitzgibbon)

In between the main stage acts at the festival is the unique theatrical experience of The Red Phone, an immersive installation piece by Vancouver’s Boca del Lupo. Two by two, audience members step up to occupy the two vintage phone booths set up on opposite ends of the Portico, thus becoming the actors of the show. (Rest assured, though: there is no other audience watching you. The performance is a private experience for two. Also take comfort in knowing that booths are thoroughly sanitized from one participant to the next.)

Upon entering the boxed enclosures, distanced individuals speak to each other on the phone by re-enacting a script displayed on a built-in digital teleprompter. There are multiple scripts to choose from – among them, two bilingual short plays by Montreal artists Alice Abracen and Omari Newton. (I had the particular adventure of reading a 5-minute piece by Boca del Lupo Artistic Directors Sherry J. Yoon and Jay Dodge). Each script is charged with an urgent issue – often social and political in nature – that is made all the more engaging in placing audience members as the very carriers of the conversation. In the temptation to act, it becomes an intent exercise in listening, and in turn is an unexpectedly visceral experience of sorts that is best described by how you are left feeling. A fascinating and well-executed concept that challenges the conventions of theatre making.

In Memoriam: The Wake of Cheddar Fandango at the Centaur Theatre’s Portico Project 2020 (Photo Credit: Camila Fitzgibbon)

Providing a ceremonial close to the night is Sermo Scomber Theatre’s In Memoriam: The Wake of Cheddar Fandango. After first premiering at the St-Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival in 2014 (where it was nominated for Best English Theatre Production and Most Promising Local English Company), this dark comedy on death is revived at the Portico with a few fresh rewrites and redirects by Sarah Segal-Lazar and a new cast consisting of holly Greco, Stephanie McKenna, Chris Barillaro, Jonathan Patterson, Espoir Segbeaya, and Dakota Jamal Wellman. Featuring live singing, tap dancing, and piano-playing by Barillaro, the show brings a much needed breath of air for musical theatre-deprived Montreal audiences in a pandemic world.

“You only get one shot in this life. Make mine a tequila,” the late cabaret star Cheddar Fandango used to say. Arriving to gather at her casket is an eclectic company of eulogizing “friends” in their show of – mostly insincere – condolences. They pay their respects (or don’t) to the deceased with teary tributes, nearly each one as comically inappropriate and suspicious in intent as the other. Between the theatrics of one best buds act to the next, however, there is something of a profound sadness in a piece that reflects the social opportunism often seen at ceremonies for the departed. Sermo Scomber does here what it does best: sharp, observant satire on the flawed human condition.

It should also be mentioned that although all of the festival shows thus far have been agile in adapting to the uncontrollable outdoor elements and playing to the occasionally distracting surroundings (audiences and artists are physically separated by an open-to-traffic St-François Xavier street), Sermo Scomber’s experience in immersive, site-specific performance comes through. In Memoriam at the Portico Project lays to rest the argument that live-in-person theatre with a grand-scale feel cannot safely take place during the pandemic, setting a new precedent for what can be achieved “on stage” at this time.

It is thrilling to be once again seeing live theatre (and writing after many months of non-practice). Stay tuned for a second round of reviews from the Centaur Theatre’s Portico Project, which runs until October 4th, 2020. All performances are free, but due to the limited audience capacity (with some shows having already been sold out), advance online reservations are highly recommended. Visit: https://centaurtheatre.com/portico-project/

UPDATE: Read the reviews from PART 2 here.

Want more scoop on the inaugural Portico Project? Read our recent interview with Centaur’s Artistic and Executive Director Eda Holmes:

Camila Fitzgibbon

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