Michel & ti-Jean
- By George Rideout
- Directed by Sarah Garton Stanley
- With Alain Goulem and Vincent Hoss-Desmarais
- At the Centaur Theatre in Montreal
The very idea of a two-hander play about a fictional meeting between literary titans Michel Tremblay and Jack Kerouac is imagined is so ludicrous it might actually work. And in George Rideout's new play, which opened last week at Centaur Theatre in Montreal, it does.
It doesn't just sort-of work, it really works, somehow making us suspend our disbelief and draw us into the imagined collision of these two formidable personalities and egos. Tremblay, of course, is the most Québécois of Québécois playwrights, the man who first introduced the Quebec slang joual to the stage - despite the disdain of some critics - with the first production of his Les Belles Soeurs. Kerouac's On the Road is credited with forever altering the evolution of American literature. And although Kerouac is American-born, his parents were both Quebecois and he spoke only French until the age of six. (Scholars have since analyzed his use of language and suggest much of his style can be attributed to his early linguistic experiences.)
Rideout, who teaches drama lit at Bishop's University in Lennoxville, south of Montreal, has clearly done his research (he wrote a thesis on Kerouac), and his imaginings of a Tremblay-Kerouac frisson become that much more believable as a result. There's an expected degree of self-consciousness to a play along these lines - references to the writers' respective works, explanations of their inner demons - but Rideout melds the exposition and action so well that, ultimately, there's nothing to forgive.
The playwright chooses his timing carefully: Tremblay is a young, impressionable optimist, riding the Quiet Revolution and high on his first success ( Les Belles Soeurs was first staged in 1968). He's a bit of a fawning groupie, utterly in awe of Kerouac, still a towering figure though clearly headed for trouble (he would die of alcoholism-related causes in October 1969, a month after this fictional meeting). The two alternately bond and spar over their intense connections to their mothers, the Church and God, what being a writer really means and Tremblay's homosexuality.
The first act is a wee bit slow, but Rideout lets loose during the second: Kerouac offers his analysis of Les Belles Soeurs to a wide-eyed Tremblay; the younger writer, at the beginning of his incredibly prolific career, begs the 47-year-old wreck to stay off the booze.
The action is buoyed by Sarah Garton Stanley's assured direction and by the performances of Vincent Hoss-Desmarais (as Tremblay) and Alain Goulem (Kerouac), which are perfection. Hoss-Desmarais, having met Tremblay on a couple of occasions, doesn't just seem to be playing him, but rather channelling him. And Goulem captures the pathos of the declining Kerouac beautifully, without ever becoming maudlin.
Michel & ti-Jean continues in Montreal until March 7.
Special to The Globe and Mail