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When life deals you lemons … put on a show about the economy of citrus fruit.

That's essentially what Montreal's Festival TransAmériques (FTA) has done, after the English-Canadian production that was supposed to kick off its 2014 edition was an embarrassing no-show at the last minute.

Instead, the festival of international theatre and dance opened on Thursday night with a local and very topical performance called Le NoShow – an evening that starts with mathematics, ends with a marshmallow fight in the audience, and illustrates everything that theatre artists are up against in trying to make a living with anything other than one-man shows in Canada.

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What was supposed to be playing in the Théâtre Jean-Duceppe in Place des Arts that night was Vancouver artist Stan Douglas's innovative hybrid of theatre, film and 3-D animation, Helen Lawrence. This was the first show from the rest of Canada invited to raise the curtain on a festival that has, in the past, given that prestigious slot to international stars such as American choreographer Merce Cunningham or German director Thomas Ostermeier.

But the twisted and tangled economics of theatre intervened – and Helen Lawrence's three-day run in front of an audience usually full of international presenters from across the United States and Europe was scuttled.

Lead producers Canadian Stage blamed Canadian Actors' Equity Association for not granting a concession that would make such a short festival run in Montreal affordable, while Equity blamed the producers for not asking for concessions from them early enough. There's probably plenty of blame to go around, but here in Quebec, where artists are represented by the Union des artistes, tout le monde is still astonished that, contrary to the famous theatre mantra, the show did not go on – and that bureaucracy and bullheadedness won.

Exactly what transpired regarding this troubled, but brilliant, production is still unclear, but, just this week, two of the show's 12 actors – Tom McBeath and Gerard Plunkett – dropped out for unspecified reasons. They've being replaced by Greg Ellwand and Ryan Hollyman for the Helen Lawrence's still-scheduled stops in Munich, Edinburgh and Toronto.

But enough about the drama of the no-show: Le NoShow, a work that, though a last-minute substitute, has been in development for four years by a group of young creators from Quebec City and Montreal, is part rant about how little theatre makes for you, part comedy show and part economic experiment.

Pulling a stunt that has in the past been attempted by the band Radiohead and comedian Louis C.K., the Collectif Nous Sommes Ici and Théâtre DuBunker allow spectators to choose how much they want to pay for their evening's entertainment.

When you arrive at Place des Arts after booking your ticket, you are handed a slip of paper by one of the seven actors in the production with a series of suggested prices going from $0 (the price of going to Sunday mass) up to $129 (the price of a hockey ticket). You fill it out anonymously in a little election-style booth and then pay at the box office where the blinds are pulled down.

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During a charming opening scene in which the seven young actors talk about the reasons they went into the theatre – childhood dreams, the adrenalin, the camaraderie, because you can kiss a co-worker and it doesn't count as cheating – the total box office is tallied.

And then the actors' dreams come up against the financial reality.

On opening night, Le NoShow pulled in $4,299 from 229 spectators – an average of $18.77 a person. That should be plenty of money to pay the seven actors on stage for their time, right?

Well no: In a scene that plays out like a postmodern version of the famous pilot of The Cosby Show – where Cliff Huxtable snatches Monopoly money away from his son to show exactly how far the salary of a "regular person" goes – that $4,299 quickly disappeared. Say goodbye to $688 in ticketing fees charged by Place des Arts, another $460 to tax. After cash went to cover preproduction expenses and travel cost, the haul for the evening was down to $640.

A quick pass of the hat through a guilty audience boosted the total up past $800, but the actors still informed us that we had only paid enough for four of the seven actors' time that evening according to union rules. And so, using our smartphones, we got to vote for which four actors we wanted to perform that evening.

Francesca Barcenas, who pleaded with us that she had just given birth and had to fly her mother from Venezuela to take care of her baby while she performed, was kept on the island. Anne-Marie Côté, however, told us to vote her off – she was a replacement performer and under union rules had already been paid, so she was quite happy to have the night off to watch the Canadiens game.

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Le NoShow – which is directed by Alexandre Fecteau – is a clever mix of comedy and complaint. The rest of the show plays as a mix of sketches and stand-up about sacrifices made, more lucrative careers not chosen and the ways that actors can actually own property (lose two fingers in a work accident in the case of François Bernier; marry a banker in the case of Barcenas).

While the show does go on a half-hour too long, it did help me put the cost of a show in perspective. Each of the 77 spectators who had paid nothing? The actors informed us they were actually costing the production $3 each – the amount Place des Arts charges to print a ticket. I thought my $31 was relatively generous until I was informed that just covers the per diem of one of the actors who had travelled in from Quebec City.

This had me calculating what it would cost to move a show like Helen Lawrence from Vancouver, put up 12 actors in Montreal, and pay them not only for the nights they perform but extra weeks required by Equity rules. Must the show go on? And if so, who's going to pay?

Promising picks

The Festival TransAmériques, which competes with Vancouver's PuSh Festival as the best showcase of international theatre and performance in the country, continues until June 7. Here are a few promising picks from the playbill – that haven't been cancelled.

L'Histoire Révélée du Canada Français, 1608 – 1998: This "revealed history" of French Canada is this year's mammoth marathon at the FTA – a three-part, seven-hour epic from the Nouveau Théâtre Expérimental, and a relative walk in the park compared to past Québecois opuses like Robert Lepage's Lipsynch (eight-and-a-half hours) or Wajdi Mouawad's Le Sang des promesses trilogy (11-and-a-half hours). Picture the irreverence of VideoCabaret's cycle of Canadian history play matched with a slick Lepage aesthetics. (May 23 – June 1)

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Les Particules élementaires: A hyperfluid, three-and-a-half hour adaption of French novelist Michel Houellebecq's intellectual and erotic 1998 book of the same name (The Elementary Particles in English) . This was a success at the Festival d'Avignon last year in its seductive, smart staging by Gosselin, a 26-year-old French director who has the kind of wunderkind reputation in theatre over there that Xavier Dolan has in film here. (May 30 and 31)

Phèdre: You may feel like the Ancient Greek story of step-MILF Phaedra already has enough retellings – Euripides, Jean Racine, Sarah Kane, that Nancy Sinatra song. But this new version is created by a supergroup of top theatre talents. The inventive and imitable Marie Brassard takes the title role, while the magnetic Emmanuel Schwartz plays her illicitly desired step-son. Mani Soleymanlou (who's play Un/One has toured the country) is also in the cast, while Jérémie Niel, who directed an Evelyne de la Chenelière adaptation that was the hit of the past Montreal season, is the director. Also: it's only 90 minutes! (May 26 to 28)

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