The Charge of the Expormidable Moose, now running in Tarragon’s Extra Space, sounds like something by Dr. Seuss. But Claude Gauvreau’s surreal play is definitely not for children. It’s the tragicomic howl of a tortured mind, an extraordinary work that falls somewhere between David Storey’s Home and Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis – to reference a couple of plays seen in Toronto of late.
The parallel with the troubled Kane is particularly strong. Gauvreau, a Quebec poet, playwright and member of Montreal’s radical Automatistes movement, wrote this play in 1956, in the midst of a mental breakdown brought on by the death of his muse, actress Muriel Guilbault. It had one production during his lifetime, in 1970, which was not a success. A year later Gauvreau died at the age of 45, an apparent suicide.
Since then, La charge de l’orignal épormyable (its original French title) has been reassessed as Gauvreau’s masterpiece and enjoyed several significant revivals in his native province. But it has never been done in English translation until now. The production in the Tarragon studio is by the adventurous One Little Goat Theatre Company and it’s a terrific introduction to this unjustly neglected work. While it only begins to measure the play’s tragic dimensions, it has the savage energy one associates with avant-garde classics such as Marat/Sade, as well as a clever, creative staging by company founder Adam Seelig.
Seelig’s interpretation takes its cue from Home, opening in what appears to be a resort or spa. There are mirrors and pastel décor, while the five characters are young athletic types in shorts and sweatbands. Only, instead of playing sports, four of them seem to be engaged in playing mind games with the fifth, a credulous fellow named Mycroft Mixeudeim (Ben Irvine). One of the two girls, Laura Pa (Lindsey Clark) or Marie-Jeanne Commode (Jessica Salgueiro), will scream as if she’s being attacked, causing Mycroft to come racing to her rescue. Each time, like a rampaging moose, he charges through one of several locked doors, butting it open with his head.
Poor, chivalrous Mycroft turns out to be a poet who has lost his true love and, possibly, his mind. His tormentors are actually in the process of giving him some kind of psychiatric evaluation. The first half of the play reaches a feverishly funny climax when they ply Mycroft with drugs and he responds by launching into epic, nonsensical ravings, reminiscent of Lucky’s soliloquy in Waiting For Godot, followed by bizarre acts of mimicry. “Mycroft mimes the actions of an eloquent orator who gradually turns into a grasshopper,” announces a recorded voice. Or, “Mycroft mimes six angels in succession, smallest to largest, flying in the clouds.” As his assessors watch these strange displays, they rush to put psychiatric labels on his behaviour. He’s “paranoid,” or “hysterical,” or “schizophrenic.”
The play’s ambiguous locale may well be inspired by Montreal’s Saint-Jean-de-Dieu hospital, where Gauvreau was confined repeatedly in the years before his death. In any case, this is a searing critique of mid-20th-century psychiatric treatment. In the harrowing final act, a brutal sadist named Letasse Cromagnon (Hume Baugh) takes over Mycroft’s treatment and the line between asylum and concentration camp is blurred.
The tall, bearded Irvine delivers a tour de force as Mycroft. By play’s end, his heroic headbutts may have your own skull aching in sympathy. Baugh is brusque and intimidating as the vicious Cromagnon. Of the other cast members, David Christo is particularly memorable as the lead tormentor Lontil-Déparey, playing him as a weedy coward. Jackie Chau’s intriguing set is Jean Cocteau-meets-Club Med – until Laird Macdonald’s gloomy lighting gives it a German Expressionist creepiness.
One Little Goat uses Ray Ellenwood’s 1996 translation of the play. Perhaps the most novel and exciting thing is the language. In the passages where Mycroft raves, or his poems are read, Gauvreau lets loose with the lyrical style he called “explorean.” The Automatistes, inspired by the Surrealists, believed in smashing artistic convention and Gauvreau’s writing here shatters sense with dream-like incongruities and invented words, resembling a fusion of James Joyce and Rimbaud. Clearly, English-Canadian audiences have been missing a wild and original dramatic voice.