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A scene from Zebrina, starring Emmanuel Schwartz.

Yves Renaud/Handout

The narrative that Montreal is a city divided by language continues on in COVID-19 times – and there is some truth to it. Polls this summer suggested that French speakers were less fearful of getting the coronavirus than English speakers (which Premier François Legault blamed on anglos watching too much CNN).

But there is another narrative about Quebec’s biggest, most bilingual city – that it’s a place where French and English mix and mingle together creatively, and there is also plenty of evidence for it even during these unprecedented times.

Take Emmanuel Schwartz, the tall and tremendously talented 38-year-old stage actor, born to a francophone mother and anglophone father, and an in-demand collaborator of all the top names in Quebec theatre, from Wajdi Mouawad to Denis Marleau, Mani Soleymanlou to Brigitte Haentjens.

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Schwartz is bringing Montreal together across his/its linguistic divide with the solo show that he is currently starring in, the first major entirely new production to hit the city’s stages since the pandemic began.

Zebrina, a French translation by Serge Lamothe of the 2001 play Under the Lintel by the American playwright Glen Berger, is on stage until Sept. 27 at the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde downtown – with tickets being sold to watch Schwartz in person (in a physically distanced audience) or through a beautifully shot livestream (broadcast online).

Once the play closes there, Schwartz will relearn the text in English, and the plan is to then tour director François Girard’s production to the Segal Centre on the other side of Mount Royal in December.

That will be, astonishingly, the first time local audiences get to see Schwartz strut his stuff on stage in his father tongue. “It’s really fun for me that I’m going to perform in both my languages,” the actor (and director and playwright) says, over the phone. “I’ve been working for a little over 15 years in town, and it’s never happened yet."

That, and the fact that the TNM, one of the city’s oldest and most prestigious French-language theatres, and the Segal, which calls itself “the heart of English theatre in Montreal,” are collaborating for the first time in their histories, are because of COVID-19′s upending of the usual order of things.

While the TNM’s artistic director Lorraine Pintal and Segal Centre’s artistic director Lisa Rubin have wanted to co-produce a show for many years, it had never worked out because of the theatres were planning seasons on different schedules.

But when the Quebec government approved indoor theatre performances for up to 250 people this summer (as long as public-health protocols are in place), both were suddenly looking for new, smaller and safer fall seasons at the same time – and with the bilingual Schwartz (a regular stage and screen collaborator of Girard, best known for his film The Red Violin in English Canada) on board, everything fell into place to make Zebrina/Under the Lintel work out.

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Schwartz’s unnamed character in the play, which Berger (a writer best known, though it’s unrepresentative, for the flop musical Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark) has updated for this production to take place in 2020, is an obsessive and awkward Dutch librarian who heads off on a quest around the world after a book is returned 133 years overdue.

Along the way, the librarian starts to suspect he is on the trail of the Wandering Jew, a controversial figure of legend said to have crossed paths with Jesus Christ on his way to crucifixion and cursed to roam the Earth until the Second Coming.

The subject is perfect territory for Schwartz, who grew up in a home where religions as well as languages crossed paths. “Because my mother is Catholic and my father is Jewish, I’m not confined in any faith,” he says. “I consider myself a citizen of the world, and I adhere to the idea of many faiths.”

Schwartz, who spent much of his early career in Paris and Brussels, has a knack for portraying characters on quests – most famously Wilfrid in Mouawad’s own production of Littoral, an allegorical play about a young man travelling to his late father’s homeland to bury him.

That charismatic and completely committed performance – which saw him covered head to toe in paint, and acting from inside a coffin full of water – earned him raves in Avignon, France, in 2009 and Montreal in 2010 (including from this critic).

Since then, Schwartz has been based in Montreal and balanced indie and experimental work with lead roles at the TNM (such as Voltaire in an adaptation of Candide, and Tartuffe in Molière’s classic comedy of that name).

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His intensity on stage has made him in-demand enough that, even during a pandemic, he’s booked up to next spring. But he does still have some wanderlust and wonders about trying things out in Toronto or Vancouver – or London. “Can a 45-year-old move to a new city and start planting roots there?” he asks. “It’s a question that is very present in my mind.”

Paradoxically, COVID-19 could very well give him the opportunity to reach English-speaking theatregoers in those cities, without leaving Montreal. The Segal Centre is looking into the logistics of livestreaming Under the Lintel in English in December, Rubin says – although nothing is confirmed yet.

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