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A scene from "Toxique"

3.5 out of 4 stars

Who's the hottest Québécois playwright in Montreal this month? Would you believe Toronto-born Greg MacArthur, who writes in English and is currently playwright-in-residence at the University of Alberta?

We'll leave it to Parliament to debate whether MacArthur qualifies as Québécois, strictly speaking, but here are the facts: Two of the long-time Montreal resident's plays have been made it to the stage in French translation this month, a (presumed) first for an English-Canadian playwright and exactly two more productions than his works have had in his hometown in the past five years.

Réhabilitation - a translation of his 2006 play Recovery by the remarkable bilingual theatre polymath Emmanuel Schwartz - completed a run at the Segal Studio earlier this month, while Toxique - a translation by Maryse Warda of 2009's The Toxic Bus Incident - is currently on at the Théâtre d'Aujourd'hui, in a significant shift for an institution dedicated to "la dramaturgie québécoise et canadienne d'expression française."

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While Quebec's theatres once ignored English-Canadian drama, there has been significant traffic in both directions between the country's anglo and franco stages over the past decade. But while the movement of French-language plays into English Canada follows a pretty straightforward path - the hits by star authors of the likes of Michel Tremblay, Carole Fréchette and Wajdi Mouawad get translated within a few seasons - the reverse process is slightly more idiosyncratic. You won't see any Morris Panych or Michael Healey, to name two of English Canada's top playwrights - in Montreal in French this season, for example, but you will find French-language productions of less universally acclaimed, more experimental works like Daniel Brooks's Insomnia and Kristen Thomson's The Patient Hour.

MacArthur certainly has a sizable following in Canada and elsewhere - National Arts Centre artistic director Peter Hinton and some Western Canadian artistic directors are fans, and he's big in Germany, too - but his work has largely been ignored in his hometown of Toronto in recent years.

His plays often offer coolly Canadian takes on dystopian or speculative fiction. Snowman (2003) concerns the body of a boy found frozen in a glacier; Recovery (2006) is set in a rehab centre in Antarctica; and in 2010's Tyland, pregnant women are sent to colonize the Arctic.

In Toxique, however (not only translated but lightly reworked from its Halifax premiere in 2009), MacArthur has grounded his work in the more instantly recognizable world of post-9/11 paranoia.

Hélène (Élise Guilbault) is travelling home from Chinatown on a bus, when an olive-skinned man - "Indian? Pakistani?" she hazards a guess to a police investigator later - says something possibly threatening to the driver as he disembarks. Soon, she and other passengers have come down with a mysterious malady.

Based on an actual incident in Vancouver in 2004 that resulted in the quarantine of 19 people but which was eventually determined to be "mass psychogenic illness," MacArthur's play probes the psychological effects of this attack - where the terror is real even if the terrorist isn't - on Hélène and her family

Husband Bernard (Guy Nadon) takes a leave of absence from his job and tries to be supportive as his wife pulls away physically and mentally, but gets involved with another "survivor" of the bus incident who has no symptoms. Son Félix (Benoît Drouin-Germain) has to move back home as the family finances are spent on air ionizers and holistic medicine - and, depressed, soon he begins to dip into his mother's expanding collection of pills. Finally, there's earnest and entitled daughter Alice (Sylvie De Morais), who returns from working at an Algerian orphanage (on her parents' dime) and has trouble finding compassion for the invented problems of her Western family.

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In director Geoffrey Gaquère's dreamlike if slightly meandering production, there's a welcome balance between comedy and compassion for these characters. Guilbault offers a hair-raising study in paranoia, while Nadon is alternately funny and heartbreaking in his failed attempts to be a strong father figure and hold his household together.

There are a couple of cutout characters played by Sophie Vajda, while the satirical eye trained on the children is occasionally too harsh. But it's hard to think of a recent Canadian play that taps so deftly into the psychology of our time - not just our fear of terrorism, but of toxins in toys or chemicals in our food, all those commonplace mass hysterias given a helping hand by mass media. In his previous plays, MacArthur has invented dystopias, but in this one, he's deftly plumbed the one we're living in.

Toxique

  • Written by Greg MacArthur
  • Translated by Maryse Warda
  • Directed by Geoffrey Gaquère
  • Starring Élise Guilbault and Guy Nadon
  • At Théâtre d'Aujourd'hui in Montreal

Toxique runs in Montreal until March 26.

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