Imago begins a new season
with The Retreat
Theatre back on track after hiatus with an impressive absurdist play
By Byron Toben
November 9, 2023
Imago Theatre, founded in 1987 with Andres Hausman as Artistic Director, has always had the mission of pushing boundaries. That motivation was continued in 2000, when Clare Schapiro succeeded him as A.D. and again in 2013 when Micheline Chevrier took over the helm. Now, the current A.D. and E.D. is the busy Krista Jackson.
Blend that orientation with an emphasis on feminism, the environment, diversity and promoting Quebec-originated works, whether written in English or French, and you have lots going on for this artist-driven collective. It had been on hiatus during the COVID crisis, so it was refreshing to see it back in action from November 2 to 6, with many dates quickly selling out at the swimming pool turned theatre venue, Bain Mathieu.
The empty pool provided an appropriate surrealistic setting for the world premiere of acclaimed Quebec playwright Gabrielle Chapdelaine’s The Retreat, translated by David Gagnon Walker, with French subtitles shown on a large screen behind the staging area.
The set consisted of a bathtub and a floor mat, the props of Hula Hoops, paddle balls and a giant beach ball, while the pool’s wall-side swimming ladders enabled performers to clamber up and down to the balcony now and then. All this had incidental music performed by the house band the Royal Pickles from time to time.
The show had a printed program in colour, listing six human performers, four women and two men: Espoir Segberya (Shirley), Nicky Fournier (Shannon), Sophie-Therese Stone-Richards (Bibou), Warona Setshwaelo (Margot), Todd Houseman (Angel/Divine) and Stephen Booth (Bruce).
The choreographer Didier Jean Francoise was aided by not one, but two “intimacy choreographers,” a growing niche specialty I first learned of when the rock opera April Fools presented at the Segal Centre in May 2022 listed Lucianna Burcheri as one.
Blend that orientation [pushing boundaries] with an emphasis on feminism, the environment, diversity and promoting Quebec-originated works, whether written in English or French, and you have lots going on for this artist-driven collective.
In addition to the printed program, which is also available digitally on the Imago website, was a useful black and white twelve-page “zine” which explained many of the nihilistic roots of this theatre of the absurd piece, a term devised by Martin Esslin to explain such authors as Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionescu.
While The Retreat is no Waiting for Godot nor Bald Soprano, the zine does feature nouns like optimism, wellness, anxiety, boredom and meaningless, invoking persons like Darwin, Nietzsche, Kerouac and Seinfeld while introducing us to the concept of “touch starvation” and the worldwide Myers-Briggs personality test, all against the backdrop of a high tech PowerPoint world. One actor escapes all this by entering a black void hole in the wall. What is reality?
This put in my mind Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger, which concluded that you are nothing but a thought wandering forlorn among the eternities, as well as Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which declared that life was “but a walking shadow full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
The moral for me was twofold – hug a lot and catch the next Imago production, but beware of the identically named Imago Theatre listings of a Portland, Oregon group, which compounded the problem by using the Canadian theatRE spelling instead of the American theatER spelling.
Images: Andrée Lanthier
Byron Toben, a past president of The Montreal Press Club, has been WestmountMag.ca’s theatre reviewer since July 2015. Previously, he wrote for since terminated websites Rover Arts and Charlebois Post, print weekly The Downtowner, and print monthly The Senior Times. He also is an expert consultant on U.S. work permits for Canadians.