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theatre review

Temporel, a circus theatre show at Montreal’s Place des Arts.

Part of the age-old draw of circus is the prospect of seeing difficult feats performed by real people. So what happens when the show is populated with animated doubles of the acrobats, and 3D figures of people never seen in the flesh?

In Temporel, a circus theatre work that opened last week at Montreal's Place des Arts, the physical talents of three members of the circus troupe Les 7 Doigts meet the more ethereal magic of animation studio Lemieux Pilon 4D Art. Doppelgangers and phantom presences are everywhere in this inventive show, in which the performance of stunts is secondary to the visualization of memory.

The show posits that only one of its characters is physically real: an old man (played by Patrick Léonard), shuffling through his apartment with his books and recollections. Much of his retrospection focuses on his late wife (Isabelle Chassé), who appears and disappears as his mind wanders. He's often transformed into younger versions of himself, from toddlerhood on, with help from five virtual performers who portray the couple at earlier stages in their lives.

Acrobatics are used sparingly in this show, and often appear as another form of visual animation. At one point, Chassé, who has performed as a contortionist with Cirque du Soleil, ends a scene by folding herself up through a narrow space in a shelving unit. Gisle Henriet, as a personification of time, leaps and tumbles in ways that seem to externalize time's way of playing tricks on the man.

Henriet's character is a cruel figure, who at times treats the old man like a puppet, snatching things from him or confusing him about where and who he is. Henriet also tinkers with a music box, while a vast clock's workings appear around Léonard.

The interactive projections form much of the stage set, at one point even doubling the real chairs, only to vanish as the man approaches. In one unforgettable scene, the stage fills with virtual water, and the central couple perform a submerged pas de deux, while virtual books rise from the bottom like bubbles.

In another scene, all three performers run while lit with life-size 3D projections of themselves. The projections don't really need a human screen, so the performers can step away from their doubles without anyone noticing. Each time the projections stops, the stage lights reveal the three in different places than the 3D images would have you believe. It's like a trick of early cinema editing, recreated in real time.

Léonard also did a couple of circus-style clown routines, which were skillful but felt detached from the show's tight focus on memory. They also weren't all that funny.

As a whole, however, Temporel is sophisticated physical theatre that uses acrobatics mainly to explore situation and character, and never lets its technical brilliance steal the show. The piece's four creators – Michel Lemieux, Victor Pilon, Chassé and Léonard – have hit on a really potent mixture of theatre, circus and digital arts.

Temporel continues at Place des Arts' Cinquième salle through Jan. 27.