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Maxim Gaudette (left) and Patrice Dubois in "Abraham Lincoln va au th��tre"

When John Wilkes Booth fired a bullet into the back of Abraham Lincoln's head during a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865, the actor-turned-assassin shattered more than the life of a president.

Jumping down from the presidential box to the stage with a shout of "Sic semper tyrannis!", Booth also smashed through the invisible fourth wall that separates audience and actors. For a disorienting moment, those in the theatre were unsure if they were watching reality or a performance. And, for spectators of American politics - as anyone who tuned in to Sarah Palin's Alaska can attest - it's been difficult to tell the two apart ever since.

Quebec playwright Larry Tremblay's Abraham Lincoln va au théâtre, for which he earned a nomination for the Siminovitch Prize, raises the curtain on the metatheatricality of Booth's bloody act while repeatedly pulling the rug out from under the audience.

Arriving at the Théâtre francais de Toronto (in French, with English surtitles for selected performances), director Claude Poissant's original, tight-as-a-drum production of the 2008 play stars Benoît Gouin as a difficult but respected theatre director named Marc Killman whose latest project is about Booth. In a move that surprises the theatre community, he hires Christian (Maxim Gaudette) and Leonard (Patrice Dubois), two actors known for playing cop partners on a popular television show, to play all the roles.

It is clear from the first rehearsal that Christian and Leonard, who have a long and complicated partnership, haven't been cast in a typical history play: First, they are instructed to dress and act like Laurel and Hardy at all times; secondly, Killman himself will be co-starring with them, playing the role of a wax statue of Abraham Lincoln.

After weeks of gruelling rehearsals filled with exhausting physical challenges and mind games, with no performance in sight, the two actors begin to lose their grip on reality. Killman slowly melts down, both figuratively and literally, in front of them.

Abraham Lincoln va au théâtre is more than a behind-the-scenes farce, however: Without giving away too many of Tremblay's absurdist twists, Christian, Leonard and Killman all turn out to be Russian dolls concealing characters within characters and the play-within-a-play repeats history, first as tragedy, then as farce.

The trio of actors who must peel away these layers are all immensely talented striptease artists. Gouin is commanding as a pair of theatrical tyrants who are swallowed up by their obsessions, while Gaudette and Dubois, done up like Laurel and Hardy throughout, bring out all the affection and casual cruelty of that comic duo's shtick.

With his big, sad eyes, Gaudette is particularly compelling, injecting some much-needed pathos into a production that occasionally becomes too mechanical. (Having recently played the killer in Polytechnique, Denis Villeneuve's film about the Montreal massacre, his presence also adds another layer to the show - as if we needed it.)

Just 95 minutes long, Abraham Lincoln va au théâtre sags a bit in the middle, when Killman's confusing rehearsals are depicted in too much detail. But Poissant rewards us for any suffering incurred during these stretches with a startling coup de théâtre at the end and generous helpings of humour along the way.

Tremblay's play is as multilayered as its characters - it doesn't lend itself to a single interpretation. There's a typically Canadian love-hate fascination with American culture and its simulations and simulacra, but what I found most intriguing was the play's exploration of how obsessions - artistic, romantic - warp our understanding of reality.

One character becomes so intoxicated with Booth that he stays up all night Googling him. Like so many who have become consumed by JFK's assassination or 9/11, he soon becomes overwhelmed by details and loses track of the big picture.

The characters in Abraham Lincoln va au théâtre all end up slipping into that zone between truth and fiction, tragedy and farce, where grassy knolls and controlled demotions and death panels exist - a paranoid chasm that Booth may have first opened up when he added his own scene to Our American Cousin 145 years ago.

Abraham Lincoln va au théâtre

  • Written by Larry Tremblay
  • Directed by Claude Poissant
  • Starring Patrice Dubois, Maxim Gaudette and Benoît Gouin
  • A Théâtre PÀP production
  • At the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs in Toronto

Abraham Lincoln va au théâtre runs until Nov. 28. The evening performance on Nov. 26 and the afternoon performance Nov. 27 will have English surtitles.

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