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The enduring appeal of Michel Tremblay Add to ...

Many people fear aging, but Michel Tremblay - once the enfant terrible of Quebec theatre, now its elder statesman - is more worried about his plays getting old.

"Every playwright is afraid that their plays will not age well," says Tremblay, over the phone from his snowbird home in Key West, Fla., where he has done the majority of his writing for the past 20 years.

"You write anything - novels or plays or whatever - for specific reasons. And sometimes, 30 or 40 years later, these reasons are not there any more."

At age 68, Tremblay continues to pen a new play or novel almost every year. But his older works also regularly get pulled off the shelf and put back into performance, allowing us to see all their wrinkles under the spotlight.

At the moment, audiences in Toronto are getting a chance to inspect two of Tremblay's most significant works of the 1970s.

Forever Yours, Marie-Lou - which turns 40 this year - is currently on stage at the Théâtre Français de Toronto in a production directed by Diana Leblanc (performances with English surtitles on selected nights).

And on Thursday, Saint Carmen of the Main - a 1976 sequel of sorts to Marie-Lou - opens in English at Toronto's Canadian Stage Company, in a big, main-stage co-production with the National Arts Centre directed by its English-theatre artistic director, Peter Hinton.

Both plays are parables of Quebec during and after the Quiet Revolution that centre on the character of Carmen (Mélanie Beauchamp and Laara Sadiq, respectively), who has escaped from her unhappy, working-class family to become a country and western singer.

In Marie-Lou, Carmen returns home 10 years after the death of her parents in a car crash to confront her introverted and religious sister, Manon.

Then, in Saint Carmen, she makes another homecoming - this time returning from a stint in Nashville to her home away from home, the red-light district near Montreal's rue St-Laurent.

In the latter play, which is structured like a Greek tragedy, Carmen has begun to question her adopted persona and American repertoire - and begins tentatively to write her own words and her own songs, an act here depicted as potentially threatening to the established order.

"All in the seventies, I talked a lot about disguising yourself - wanting to be somebody, but not having the courage to be what or who you are," says Tremblay, whose most famous play on that theme, Hosanna, is being revived at Ontario's Stratford Shakespeare Festival this season.

In Tremblay's mind, both Marie-Lou and Saint Carmen are inextricably linked to the tumultuous period of rising nationalism they were written in - the first just after the October Crisis, the second right before the election of the Parti Québécois.

"For me, they were political plays," Tremblay says. "But I know that this layer of politics is gone now, so if the characters are not strong enough, the plays will not age well."

In an odd way, Tremblay's early plays have an easier go of it transcending their times in English than in their original French - specifically, joual, the working-class French of Montreal.

While Carmen is locked into the same words for time immemorial in French-language productions, her lines can be rewritten anew in English for every generation; as with Chekhov, Tremblay can always be our contemporary.

That's more than just theory now: Tremblay's plays are, impressively and uniquely in the Canadian canon, now getting second or even third translations. And they may be getting better as that tricky art form evolves.

Linda Gaboriau, the go-to translator of Tremblay's works in recent years, has created a new version of Saint Carmen for the Canadian Stage/NAC co-production that is livelier than the original done by John Van Burek for the Tarragon Theatre in 1978.

"Linda lives in Montreal and she's been living in Montreal for 40 years and she's very near the language and she lives in French," says Tremblay, though he's not knocking his original translators Van Burek and the late Bill Glassco, who first introduced him to English Canada.

As for his older plays getting reinvigorated in Quebec, there is the stunning success of the recent musical version of his first important play, Les Belles-Soeurs, which will certainly spawn more Tremblay reinvestigations.

"Oh, it's so good!" says Tremblay of the show with music by Daniel Bélanger and lyrics by René Richard Cyr, currently being translated into English by, of course, Gaboriau. "When I first heard the songs, I just fell off my chair."

Tremblay was ready to see some Botox injected into that groundbreaking play. "Because Belles-Soeurs is my oldest play, 45 years old this year, I was a bit sick of it," he confesses. "I saw so many productions of it, I'd say, 'Not again, Les Belles-Soeurs!' "

That's not what audiences say about Tremblay revivals, however, judging by their proliferation across the country. They like the pleasure of seeing them again and say: Encore une fois, si vous permettez.

Saint Carmen of the Main runs at Toronto's Bluma Appel Theatre from Feb. 10 to March 5; Forever Yours, Marie-Lou continues at Toronto's Berkeley Street Theatre until Feb. 19.

 

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