Carbone 14

at Centre East

October 15-17

Chicago has nothing like Montreal’s Carbone 14. Few cities do, I suppose–rarely will you see theatrical images this imaginatively conceived, grandly designed, and expertly executed. Le dortoir (“The Dormitory”), created by artistic director Gilles Maheu in 1988, exemplifies the kind of exquisite craftsmanship that has rightfully garnered Carbone 14 its world-class status.

The piece is set in the dormitory of a Catholic boarding school, brought to life through Maheu’s spectacular design, which transforms the stage into a vaulting, ghostly space with walls the color of corroded copper and a second-story gallery of carefully orchestrated broken windows and rust. Twelve institutional beds built of thick steel occupy the stage like ancient guards watching over this decaying space. Along the edges of the room colorful fall leaves are scattered, incongruous and magical.

Maheu’s design is paradoxically both specific and placeless. While everything in the room is real–an old fire extinguisher on the wall, a radiator and sink tucked into a nook upstage–the elements have been so carefully selected and arranged that the room acquires a transcendent beauty, lifting it to the realm of metaphor. The room is like a memory, based in the real world but forever distant.

Le dortoir is in fact a work of memory. The piece begins when a middle-aged man, lighting his way with a flashlight, wanders pensively among the beds, deep in thought. He seems to be revisiting a familiar place, now deserted. This prologue ends as he pulls a pistol from his pocket and places it under his jaw, as if summoning the nerve to pull the trigger. Mysterious images then begin to appear far upstage–a man languidly sparring with a punching bag, a young girl combing another girl’s hair, a nun pacing back and forth. The actors move dreamily, as if they were underwater, and the scenes are staged behind clear plastic slats that cast dramatic shadows across the players. As these evocative images continue, a sleeping woman magically floats in and out of several second-story windows, her arms outstretched.

Together these images suggest a ghostly invocation, as if bits of memory and fantasy were sparking to life. Gradually the room fills with six men and six women, dressed to suggest school uniforms. Continuing in the same dreamy slow motion, they perform a long dance in unison, each person dancing with his or her bed instead of a partner. The performers often hoist themselves over the bedsteads so slowly that they seem to defy gravity. Imperceptibly the performers begin to speed up as the lights slowly brighten, and eventually they evolve into boisterous children.

The first half is a playful, and at times horrifying, exploration of life in this dormitory. Some sequences are endearingly innocent: the prankster of the group, who stuffs a sock in a sleeping friend’s mouth, jumps around the room with his underwear on his head until the nun enters and catches him. Other scenes are shockingly unchildlike: the beds are tipped on end, and the women twist about on them as if being tortured. As in a dream, reality is fluid, and events are at once ordinary and mysterious. Throughout, the performers exhibit extraordinary physical control and a deep commitment to the material.

The first half of the piece is spectacular, full of rich ambiguity. After the midway point, though, when a voice announces that John F. Kennedy has been killed, the piece becomes much more overt and singular in its intent. The students come to embody American society as it was changed in the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination, which introduces discord into the group as they vie to claim Kennedy’s legacy. They split into two camps and fight to take over the blackboard, upon which they write their support or contempt for Kennedy. The piece grows darker and more desperate, returning finally to the solitary man, who speaks what may be a lamentation or a blessing.

The sudden midway shift in direction drains Le dortoir of much of its power–the introduction of Kennedy’s assassination limits the possible meanings of the images. Suddenly everything becomes a response to that event, and the poetic resonance of the first half is greatly reduced. The piece seems to suggest that the Kennedy assassination was the catalyst for the release of anger and discontent as the American Camelot, symbolized in the apparently harmonious but repressive dormitory, disintegrated. This well-worn notion does not have the kind of scope that a work of this magnitude needs to sustain itself.

Maheu’s images are strongest when they contain meaning in and of themselves. In the first half, he explores the rich psychological possibilities of the dormitory on its own terms, as a place where intimacy is forced and yet impossible. This contradiction is wonderfully exploited as we see lots of casual, friendly contact between performers but feel their constant ache for something more. Once the dormitory has been made to stand for something else–American society–the emotions of the piece lose the immediacy that makes so much of Le dortoir truly engaging.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yves Dube.