It’s charming. It’s innovative—even daring. And then it peters out.
In Straight Jacket Winter, co-writers Esther Duquette and Gilles Poulin-Denis tell an autobiographical story about the alienation they felt when they moved from Montreal to Vancouver in 2011.
Duquette and Poulin-Denis have both worked a lot with Théâtre la Seizième and Duquette is the company’s new artistic and managing director but, as fresh arrivals to Vancouver, their on-stage counterparts complain bitterly about the state of theatre in Terminal City: “There’s no exploration of form!”
Straight Jacket Winter explores form. In this production, actors Julie Trépanier and Frédéric Lemay perform the roles of Esther and Gilles, but the authors themselves also take the stage as tender guides and assistants. They comment on the action, provide props, and manipulate imagery via overhead projectors.
Much of this is playful. As Duquette describes meeting Poulin-Denis, whom she calls the love of her life, we hear Etta James’s “At Last” in the witty soundscape created by Jacques Poulin-Denis and Antoine Berthiaume, and Gilles Poulin-Denis sprays fog around the slow-dancing actors to enhance the mood. Firecrackers sparkle in Antoine Quirion Couture’s video design.
The stagecraft is often humbly concrete. Throughout, Esther folds and cuts paper, creating objects that are then used in scenes: a tiny boat, a crown. Straight Jacket Winter also makes inventive use of everyday objects. In a satisfyingly subtle sequence, Gilles talks about being a kid in Saskatchewan. As he describes driving home from his grandfather’s farm to the big city where his family lived, he tells us that, at night on the prairie, you can see a city’s lights long before you get to the city limits: “There was always a moment when I thought we would never be able to make it all the way home.” As he’s speaking, we see a grid of sparkles on a flat surface. Then the image pulls back and we realize that we’ve been looking at light reflecting off a cheese grater, one of the few items that Esther and Gilles brought with them from Montreal. The theme of home—and all that implies in terms of nostalgia, ennui, alienation, and belonging—is the project’s central concern.
Straight Jacket Winter is daring, especially in its use of real time to evoke loneliness. As Esther and Gilles mope in their apartment, waiting to hear from would-be friends who don’t return their texts, they try desperately to entertain themselves by playing games. They even bet who can stay on the couch longest. The passage of time feels concrete and odious. In this sense, Straight Jacket Winter is like a Gen X Waiting for Godot.
Throughout, the performances are first rate. Trépanier feels so authentic she could be in a documentary film. And the boisterously charming Lemay comes very close to matching that level of naturalism.
Unfortunately, as Esther and Gilles go increasingly nutty, their bizarre behaviour uncouples from narrative specifics and becomes flatly symbolic. The characters run around, emote, and create odd images, but this part of the evening feels acting-class indulgent. For too long, nothing really happens.
The play’s resolution feels completely arbitrary, which is disappointing both narratively and thematically. But its final image is surprising and very pretty.
Overall, I was happy to spend time with Esther and Gilles. I would have returned their texts.
STRAIGHT JACKET WINTER Written and directed by Esther Duquette and Gilles Poulin-Denis with directorial assistance from Edith Pathenaude. Coproduced by Théâtre la Seizième, 2Par4, and the National Arts Centre French Theatre. At Studio 16 on Tuesday, October 25. Continues until October 29.
Get tickets at 604-736-2616 or go to http://fr.brownpapertickets.com/event/2595203