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Arts Elephant Wake: A poignant Prairie tale of a dwindling culture

Joey Tremblay in Elephant Wake.

3 out of 4 stars

Elephant Wake

  • Written and performed by Joey Tremblay
  • Directed by Bretta Gerecke
  • At the National Arts Centre in Ottawa

Elephant Wake is a fascinating, if flawed, solo show about the last remaining resident of Ste. Vierge, a fictional French-Canadian hamlet on the Saskatchewan prairie.

Nearly 70, Jean Claude - played by the playwright, Joey Tremblay, in an impressive and interactive performance - is the guardian of the spirit of his dead village. On a silver, otherworldly, almost postapocalyptic set designed by director Bretta Gerecke, he preserves Ste. Vierge's history by creating little beer-bottle dolls that represent the large Catholic families that used to fill the town, its school and its church.

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With a French-speaking mother who died in childbirth and an unknown English-speaking father from the nearby, growing English town of Welby, Jean Claude, who suffers from an unnamed mental disability, is a bridge between the area's two main cultures, one of which has slowly been swallowing the other all his life. He expresses himself to us mostly in English but with smatterings of French, not always knowing the right words in his new language, but often unable to recall the old ones in his mother tongue.

(In this, Jean Claude is an interesting contrast to Harwan from Wajdi Mouawad's Seuls , which played the National Arts Centre French theatre last season. Harwan had almost entirely lost his mother tongue of Arabic and replaced it with French, proving English isn't the only language that assimilates.) While Elephant Wake certainly buys into the romantic notion that the world is more clearly seen through the eyes of a child or a childlike adult, this character study is not caught up in the romantic politics of linguistic preservation. Tremblay is deeply interested in the tension between stasis and change, but doesn't fall on one side of the argument or the other. "What is truly worth holding on to and what is necessary to let go?" he asks in his program note. "Furthermore how does nostalgia impede progress and how does progress eliminate our connection with the past?"

In a potent dramatic metaphor, Jean Claude often sings to us in a high-pitched voice as he recalls his days as a boy soprano at the church.

The angelic voice he is said to have once possessed, however, has now turned into a strained falsetto. And so here he is singing in Latin, a language now excised from church services and nearly dead, in a simulation of a voice he no longer possesses. It is at once beautiful, and you long to have heard him as a boy, but at the same time eerie and even morbid.

There's a sadness in growing up and changing, Tremblay seems to be saying, but if we don't, we may end up like Jean Claude, a stunted outcast. It's a brutal trade-off.

Tremblay explores his themes through other characters, too, notably Jean Claude's uncle Elis, who lives in the woods with a Métis man and fondly recalls his days singing Edith Piaf songs in drag in Paris. When Tremblay is playing Jean Claude playing Elis playing Edith Piaf, his performance digs deep into the layers of identity (and brings to mind Hosanna , a play by another Tremblay).

Other times, however, Elephant Wake 's metaphors feel a little too laboured.

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The papier-mâché zoo that Jean Claude builds with his grandmother - and which gives the play its title - is too eccentric to be affecting.

It also comes too late in the game, and here is where Elephant Wake exhibits a common symptom of Fringe shows expanded beyond their original length.

The show began life 12 years ago at the Edmonton Fringe and eventually toured to Edinburgh, where it won a Fringe First Award; this two-act version was commissioned by Regina's Globe Theatre last season, however, and it feels overstretched. I've said it before, but a play is "full-length" when it is the right length - and that could be 10 minutes or nine hours.

Elephant Wake is only hurt by its intermission, which breaks the spell Tremblay skillfully weaves, and longer running time, which makes the sometimes irritating Jean Claude outlive his welcome.

After its run at the NAC, Elephant Wake tours to Persephone Theatre in Saskatoon (Nov. 19-29) and then will be presented as part of the Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad in March.

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