Clementine: A (True) Story – tenderness that could be better shaped

publicity photo for Clementine: A (True) Story

Laura (Anaïs Pellin) and Clementine (Isabelle Bartkowiak) take a ride to the beach.

Watching a tender kids’ show is a very pleasant way to spend 45 minutes on a Sunday morning.

Writer Anaïs Pellin started her process with Clementine: A (True) Story during a workshop in Belgium, where she’s from. (Pellin is now based in Vancouver.) The workshop was about memory and the show is about how a little girl named Clementine and her younger sister Laura negotiate their parents’ divorce.

Clementine uses a technique called object theatre: the show’s two actors (Pellin as Laura and Isabelle Bartkowiak as Clementine) use toy-like props to tell their story: a tiny yellow cab for Dad to drive away in, little pairs of shoes to represent their friends at school. This technique amplifies the pure imagination — and innocence — of kids’ play.

Pellin and Bartkowiak also voice and embody other characters, including Mom (Martina) and Dad (Pierre).

Within this style, I enjoyed the company’s inventiveness. The actors perform from behind a raised table that’s covered in black fabric. Bartkowiak takes out a toy sand pail and pours a perfect line of sand across the blackness, creating a road by a beach. Pellin “drives” a tiny red car along that road. We know it contains the whole family and we can hear Mom and Dad fighting. When the scene is over, the actors flip the fabric and the road disappears.

It’s pretty great. And it’s pretty great watching how completely this style of theatre engages kids.

I’m less sure about the script, which is more a collection of snapshots than a traditionally progressive — and thematically cumulative — narrative. We see Clementine depressed at school, enjoying the big bed she and Laura share at Dad’s new apartment, being angry that Mom has a new boyfriend, and so on. Clementine’s friend Jasmine helps her out a bit: Jasmine’s parents are divorced, but she’s not fazed. But Clementine doesn’t really gain any insight: in the most moving — but oddly abstract — moment in the show, a carnival magician turns the (literal) hard rock of grief and rage she’s been carrying into a beautiful gem. In Clementine, that’s what healing looks like.

I’m of two minds about this. On one level, this symbolism is about the way time helps to make things better, which can certainly be true. But what about understanding things like the fact that divorce isn’t the child’s fault — although many, many, many kids are convinced that’s the case? What about the quality of relationships that can allow forgiveness to take place?

That’s one of the odder things about Clementine: all of the adults in the story (except Mom’s hapless new boyfriend) come across as pompous authoritarians. (Martine is particularly grating.) Among the deficits created by this set-up: when Mom and Dad split, we can only understand Clementine’s loss theoretically.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have a child with me, so I couldn’t do a kid check-in on all of this.

Because there wasn’t a lot of thematic accumulation, I grew a little bored with Clementine. But my dominant impressions are of the innocence of the show’s technique and the gentleness of performers Pellin and Bartkowiak.

CLEMENTINE: A (TRUE) STORY written and created by Anaïs Pellin in collaboration with the actors. Dramaturgy and scenic writing by Francis Monty. Translated from French by Leanna Brodie. A Kleine Compagnie and Compagnie de la Pire Espèce production in collaboration with Alliance Française. Presented by Carousel Theatre for Young People at The Nest. On Sunday, February 12. Running until February 18. There will be French-language performances on February 14 at 10:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. Here’s where to get tickets for the Vancouver run. Clementine will also play Victoria’s Kaleidoscope Theatre February 21 to 26. Here’s where you can get tickets for the Victoria run.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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