Friday, April 8, 2011

Critical Perspective: L'Effet de Serge

L’Effet de Serge by Philippe Quesne / Vivarium Studio (Paris)

Vivarium Studio is supported by The Institut Francaise and The Consulate of France in Calgary.

Michael Thomas Taylor, University of Calgary

I had a friend like that, my husband said last night at Theatre Junction, and truth be told I wish I did too. Serge, played by Gaëtan Vourch, is a lanky, unassuming astronaut clown; a deadpan, low-budget, pyrotechnic trickster; an existential escape artist alone in his room, finding wonder in the everyday with three-minute performances he presents to invited guests.

All of this has been said in a number of articulate and often affectionate reviews from across Europe and North America. Internationally, this show has been a hit and it was a hit last night as well – a quiet, evenly spoken kind of hit, the kind of experience you’re happy to talk about, but happier to have chanced upon and shared with others, a distillation of feelings that you didn’t know you had. (Which is not to say the audience was quiet; Serge provokes constant, riotous laughter.) This visceral kind of performance – an experience of ritual meaning making, of something “happening,” which includes painfully long-lasting non-action intervals – is as charming as it is elemental. To say that this is Serge’s “effect” on us is to say that the piece blurs the boundaries between life and art, between fiction and reality, and between the artificial and the authentic; with Serge, these usually hackneyed phrases in fact become lived experience. Descriptions of the work tend to emphasize Serge the Sunday-evening-performer, and yet the astronaut who arrives is emphatically not Serge, and by the time this figure has completely come to inhabit his apartment and his new role and has welcomed his first visitor, nearly thirty minutes have passed – almost half of the performance. That we hardly notice this time passing and so easily follow Serge into this new scene, almost forgetting the meticulously deliberate construction of both the character and the setting, is telling.

Another of Serge’s effects is to make us see that we have always been part of this world. In the first moments of the performance, as Gaëtan Vourch appeared in his astronaut kit behind the glass door with some sort of scanning device (or was it just a blue light?), I had a sudden sense of reversal – that I had come to the theater only to find this figure looking in at me. I had the feeling that I was in the vivarium, and that this unexpected appearance revealed my life to have been, all along, contained in a glass box on display. And of course, as we know from the program and from a casting-call that Theatre Junction emailed out last week, some of the friends that Serge invites over are locals. We are Serge’s audience and we might just as well be sitting on stage. This also means that, ultimately, we are as much part of the performance as Serge himself, which is one reason he stays with you, and that you wish indeed you had a friend like him.