Culture  Winter gets inside Centaur Theatre

Canadian playwright warms up Montreal crowds this season

Reminiscent of the Theatre of the Absurd, the work of renowned Canadian playwright Morris Panych is known for its unique blend of black comedy and dark ruminations upon the meaning of life, human interaction, and isolation. With these eerie qualities of Panych’s corpus in mind, the Centaur Theatre in Old Montreal has revealed itself as a venue uniquely suited to his style of plays. Half-traditional theatre and half-black box, the dark and isolated interior of Centaur itself contributed greatly to the strange ambience of In Absentia, Panych’s newest play, which premiered there this past Thursday.

This mystery story is a powerful meditation on the nature of lost love and grief, depicting a woman whose dire circumstances force her into deep contemplation of her marriage, both its ups and downs. Working with such a complex text as Panych’s, the production triumphs on the backs of an extremely talented cast.

The play follows protagonist Colette (Jillian Fargey) as she resides in her remote country cottage a year after her husband Tom’s abduction while he was on a business trip to Colombia. Amidst the frozen winter of her grief, a young stranger, Jasper (Jade Hassouné), arrives in desperate need of shelter from the cold. Jasper, however, displays uncanny similarities to Tom (Paul Hopkins), who still constantly interacts with Colette, either as a ghost or a figment of her imagination. This spurs Colette to prolong Jasper’s stay and investigate this strange connection, much to the chagrin of her concerned sister, Evelyn (Susan Glover), and suitor Bill (Carlo Mestroni).

Jillian Fargey plays Colette brilliantly, as a woman much too complacent with her grievous situation, as her wryly humorous and giddy attitude attest. This attitude, however, cunningly betrays her character’s denial. Unable to face such a grave loss, she stubbornly refuses to give up hope for her husband’s return. Her character’s emotional stasis is conveyed through powerfully arresting monologues and her interaction with the mysteriously present Tom. Fargey and Hopkins masterfully perform their roles of two people so in love that they remain connected even in separation. Indeed, their natural chemistry together makes this duo the most impressive onstage presence.

Jade Hassouné delivers a charismatically flirtatious Jasper, whose wooing of Colette allows him to gradually absorb some of her and Tom’s chemistry. Hassouné skillfully renders a character that is affable and yet wholly – and perhaps threateningly – enigmatic and mysterious. Like Colette, we too feel like we know him from somewhere. Susan Glover provides comic relief portraying the quirky Evelyn with her clumsy attempts at meeting her sister’s emotional needs, while Carlo Mestroni succeeds in presenting Bill’s frustrated and unrequited love for Colette.

Roy Surette’s direction adeptly conquers what must have been an intensely challenging script. With one act of over thirty scenes, the story moves quickly through a fragmented timeline, and Surette manages to enact this movement with surprising smoothness. The lighting used to differentiate between scenes was highly effective, instantly transporting us from a sweltering hospital room in Mexico to the snowed-in Canadian cottage. The set was simple but successful in establishing the remoteness of the domestic setting within a desolate wintery expanse.

The play’s only weakness was a sense of incompleteness upon the story’s conclusion; many questions were left unanswered, and I doubt whether this was to a thematic end. Nonetheless, the accomplishments in performance, direction, and lighting established this production’s real strength as an expressionistic exploration of one individual’s grief. The production uniquely and powerfully communicates the workings of a mind discordantly whirling and searching for its bearings, attempting to grapple with lost love, emotional stasis, and isolation. To anyone fond of Panych’s work, or simply in the mood for a highly evocative theatrical experience, this is a must-see for Centaur’s 2011-2012 season.