The comic duo of Tim Tyler and Joe De Paul in Pandemonium at the Centaur Theatre Company’s Portico Project (Photo: Camila Fitzgibbon)
Day 2 of marathoning at the Centaur Theatre Company’s Portico Project and the second half of these reviews (which are a continuation of Friday’s recap) brings our coverage of this spirited mid-pandemic theatre festival to a bittersweet close.
An unusually warm September afternoon welcomes a (physically distanced) crowd for the first of Saturday’s triad of featured shows, Pandemonium. Fortunately, the only chaos in view is the deliberately comic one taking centre stage as the clown duo of Tim Tyler and Joe De Paul emerge onto the steps of the portico for a vaudevillian act of song, magic, slapstick, and circus.
The whimsical show plays on the entertainers’ return to the stage after months of COVID-19 lockdown, bringing a combination of their familiar tricks with some new “no-touch” comedy to acknowledge the times. Among the more memorable gags are the mouth juggling of ping-pong balls and a clever bit on the valuing of art – a surprisingly touching moment given the present-day debate on the “essential” worth of artists. There’s brilliant energy from the duo despite the challenges of playing to a masked, muffled audience (how difficult for a performer to gauge viewer reaction, which is most essential in comedy). Charismatic and wholly entertaining, Pandemonim fulfills the variety genre for the festival.
Manouchka Elinor and Maryline Chery in Fanm Rebel at the Portico Project. Nods for the notable designs go to Georges Michael Fanfan for costumes and Sandrina Sparagna for sets. (Photo: Camila Fitzgibbon)
Next on stage is another firecracker duo, Maryline Chery and Manouchka Elinor, as they present Collectif Théâtral Potomitan’s Fanm Rebel. Written by Chery, who here explores her personal heritage, the original short play brings to theatrical being two Black muses from the “First Museum of Haitian Women” to recount the forgotten stories of Haitian heroines. As the pair of narrating characters lead the audience through the various portraits, statues, and displays of the museum exhibition, historical figures come to vivid life in a powerful denunciation of oppression and a poignant celebration of female revolutionaries. It’s an inspiring tribute to their legacy and a moving call for action against the erasure of Black female voices.
Sanité Bélaire, Marie Sainte Dédée Bazile, Cécile Fatiman, and Marie-Jeanne Lamartiniére are the names we are asked to remember. Symbols of Haitian independence, Fanm Rebel frames them not only as slaves and prisoners, but as influential leaders, warriors, and mothers. As the muses lead us through the timeline of Haitian colonization, uprising, and sovereignty, we are taken on a vigorous journey that is rich in educational content, but that never loses its panache in balancing an informative tone with humour and play. A smart, polished piece that we envision as being mandatory viewing in schools across Canada.
Theatre NUAJ’s Black Balloon at the Portico Project (Photo: Camila Fitzgibbon)
The night is most auspiciously met with the premiere of Black Balloon: Portico Edition – a fantastical new piece by Theatre NUAJ patterned by motifs of darkness and dreaming (the Centaur version is a short excerpt of a full-length play currently in the works). Playwright, director, and designer Sophie El-Assaad also here delves into her own heritage in the fictional story of a Middle Eastern girl seeking her identity. The audience is invited to witness her living dream as she speaks to the moon – a hauntingly imperious yet motherly figure – with whom she learns to connect with her environment and with herself.
Black Balloon is unequivocally the Portico’s most technically impressive production. It is thus worth noting the exceptional design/creative contributions of Adam Walters (projections), Zoe Roux (lighting), Evan Stepanian (sound), and Nasim Lootij (choreography), in addition to the talents of the performing cast (Mahalia Golnosh Tahririha, Chadia Kikondjo, Kimia Pourazar, and Maria Marsli). Remarkable work, truly. The video and accompanying sound distortions in particular are hypnotic. No moment of the 15-minute dystopian trance has been lost on me as I surrendered myself to the sensorial experience of it.
Even if stripped of the multimedia thrill, the piece is fully supported by the beauty of El-Assaad’s poetic script. There is both wisdom and childlike wonder in the words, which gives Black Balloon the levity for imagination to take flight, while also grounding it in the teachings of nature. There is great potential in this magical piece, and as decidedly my top personal pick at the inaugural Portico, I very much look forward to seeing its development.
If you can safely get to the Old Port within the next week, the Portico is the high point of Montreal English theatre’s pandemic-stricken 2020 fall season. Performances run until Sunday, October 4th. All show are free, but due to the limited audience capacity, advance online reservations are highly recommended. Wear a mask, keep your distance, and enjoy what may be one of the first and last live theatrical offerings this season. For more information: https://centaurtheatre.com/portico-project/
Want more scoop on the inaugural Portico Project? Read our recent interview with Centaur’s Artistic and Executive Director Eda Holmes: