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Michel Marc Bouchard has written many plays about small-towns turned upside down by art or artists – but Embrasse feels somewhat like a parable about our pandemic times.YVES RENAUD/TNM

At the opening night of Embrasse at the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde (TNM) in Montreal last week, I heard something I had not heard in 18 months: the sound of strangers’ uninhibited laughter in an enclosed space.

I had recently been part of a spaced-out indoor audience laughing from behind masks, and in others where people laughed unmasked in the outdoors in Ontario.

But masks are not mandatory once seated inside at the theatre in Quebec in this new vaccine passport era – and the only physical distancing requirement in the province at this point is a single empty seat between parties.

And so, for the first part of Embrasse, I found myself repeatedly astonished, enchanted and a little frightened by the laughter emitted by about 450 unmasked mouths, the way it bounced off the walls and was absorbed by and rippled through bodies.

I had forgotten how laughter can startle like an animal bursting into the room – and how, at its most contagious, it transforms a whole group of spectators into a single spasming, gasping beast. There is a beauty and an ugliness to this cacophony.

Beauty and ugliness are the twin subjects of Embrasse, as they are of so many plays by Michel Marc Bouchard, one of Quebec’s celebrated playwrights.

Embrasse feels like a stepping stone for Bouchard after the recent total triumph of the family saga La nuit où Laurier Gaudreault s’est réveillé – which is being turned into a miniseries by filmmaker Xavier Dolan for his television debut.YVES RENAUD/TNM

Embrasse, which is opening the 70th anniversary season of the TNM in a production by director Eda Holmes that then goes on a tour before playing as Kisses Deep in a partially recast English version at the Centaur Theatre early in 2022, is not a comedy, exactly.

It tells the story of Béatrice (Anne-Marie Cadieux, a stage giant in Quebec) and her son, Hugo (Théodore Pellerin, the rising film and television star whose English-language Showtime series On Becoming a God in Central Florida was cancelled after one season due to the pandemic).

The two run a fabric store together in in a depressing mall somewhere in small-town Quebec.

Béatrice seems to have given up on the possibilities of beauty in this place; she describes ugliness as a contagion – “Icitte c’est la contagion du laite” – that no one can escape in her small town. Her uncensored criticisms of the world around her are the source of much of the dark comedy in the play; she refuses to wear a mask anymore.

Hugo, however, still strives for beauty and is exploring different escape routes from ugliness – in his mind, he has interactions with the late French designer Yves Saint Laurent (Yves Jacques), a fantasy father figure; and in reality, he has applied to fashion school in Montreal.

But there is a darker kind of escape from day-to-day life explored by both Béatrice and Hugo as well – the expression of violence, which is often a flipside to or distorted reflection of art in Bouchard’s plays.

In its mother-son relationship, Embrasse has a hint of The Glass Menagerie to it – but it has a structure, not entirely satisfying, that owes a bit to courtroom drama.

Its inciting incident comes when Béatrice punches a teacher (Alice Pascual) in the face in the mall one day in response to a cruel comment in passing; each of the characters, including a police officer (Anglesh Major), takes turns delivering a kind of a testimony to the audience as we slowly get to the root of the altercation and the secrets of the small family of Béatrice and Hugo are revealed.

Embrasse is opening the 70th anniversary season of the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde.YVES RENAUD/TNM

Bouchard has written many plays about small-towns turned upside down by art or artists (The Divine, The Madonna Painter) – but Embrasse feels somewhat like a parable about our pandemic times.

Is there a link between the suppression of beauty due to COVID-19 restrictions (in the closings of theatres and museums) and the proliferation of ugliness in the form of antisocial behaviour?

Bouchard has been outspoken about the depressing pressure theatre artists have been under to “pivot” away from their passion and profession over the past year and a half.

The playwright and other prominent artists’ public advocacy no doubt played a role in getting the Quebec government to take the quick action a year ago that has allowed performing arts companies to continue with live, in-person presentations in a safe fashion.

Theatres have been open here since March thanks to a box-office subsidy from the provincial Coalition Avenir Québec government that makes up for reduced capacity and insures against sudden closure – one that inspired a plank in the recent federal Liberal Party platform.

Embrasse feels like a stepping stone for Bouchard after the recent total triumph of the family saga La nuit où Laurier Gaudreault s’est réveillé – which is being turned into a miniseries by filmmaker Xavier Dolan for his television debut.

Likewise, the play’s production at the TNM, too, is a stepping stone back to a new normal rather than a full arrival there for Montreal’s live arts scene.

Embrasse is welcoming a larger audience to that theatre than it has had since the start of 2020, but there is still that last remaining restriction that requires leaving a seat on either side of groups of fully vaccinated spectators. Which, given COVID-19 is airborne, is hard to understand as anything other than a ritual, akin to leaving an empty chair for Elijah at Passover.

I wondered too why Quebec had required me to keep my mask on while walking around at the airy spacious Biodome with my son earlier in the week after showing my vaccine receipt, but not at the theatre with strangers much closer to me for a longer period of time?

So, full disclosure: I imposed my own restriction on myself and kept my mask on during Embrasse (as did a handful of other spectators).

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