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The cast of Une île flottante, the mad bilingual farce that opened this year’s festival.Simon Hallström/ICONIQ Studio GmbH

Une île flottante is a dessert of meringue floating on what the English call running custard and the French call crème anglaise. It's also the name of the mad bilingual farce that opened this year's Festival TransAmériques (FTA) at Montreal's Théâtre Jean Duceppe on Thursday.

The play is Swiss director Christoph Marthaler's very loose adaptation of La Poudre aux yeux, an 1861 comedy by Eugène Labiche about the families of two sweethearts whose mothers scheme to present themselves to each other as being richer than they are. The play is still produced in France, and is popular enough in German-speaking lands to have been translated by Austrian Nobel Prize-winning playwright Elfriede Jellinek.

In Marthaler's version, which also has the German title Das Weisse vom Ei (Egg White), one family speaks French and the other German, a broad hint of the deceptions they're about to practice on each other. But the director is after something much bigger than social lying. His characters are captives of roles and conventions that seem more real than those who struggle to maintain them. Like the bourgeois characters in a Luis Bunuel film, they cling to shattered notions of decorum which they helplessly and continually violate.

Some of this disruption takes the form of highly physical clown work – classic pratfalls, funny walks that owe an obvious debt to Monty Python, and a few hilarious virtuoso escapes from chairs whose bottoms fall out from under the sitters. Every character is ridiculous, all the time, and yet each has an intense peculiar integrity as a presence. As they wait out the sometimes long pauses between lines in a routine social exchange, you begin to wonder about the layers of consciousness buried alive beneath the chatter.

The action unfolds in two rooms of an overdecorated house. The period seems to be the early 1950s, though a malignant butler occasionally flashes a remote control to cue sound effects, music and even the other players, who in one scene freeze entirely for his rendition of an excerpt from Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky. The music is mostly tacky arrangements of famous classical pieces. The characters also sing, unpredictably launching into things like Tony Hatch's Downtown, Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus, or the English country tune The Old Sow.

The apex of the show's construction of empty meaning comes when the fathers exchange gibberish speeches in what they imagine to be the other family's language. Gesture becomes the only functioning channel of communication, and even that becomes a hilarious symphony of mimed sociability. Eventually they can't speak at all, but drift into wordless vocalizing, or repetitions of the one word, "Ich…" At the end, the players methodically pack up the furnishings and leave, as if the material reminders of their status and habits were all that allowed them to exist.

The excellent cast for this unforgettable show includes Marc Bodnar, Carina Braunschmidt, Charlotte Clamens, Raphael Clamer, Catriona Guggenbuhl, Ueli Jaggi, Graham Forbes Valentine and Nikola Weisse. All are given co-creation credits in the program, along with Malte Ubenauf and Anna Viebrock.

This year's FTA features an impressive list of 25 theatre and dance productions, 10 of them brand new, 10 never before seen in North America. Artistic director Martin Faucher sees a post-traumatic thread running through many of the diverse offerings.

"The economic crisis has provoked a crisis of identity and values," he says, citing Une île flottante as a comic expression of the upheaval. A more tragic instance comes in Ce ne andiamo per non darvi altre preoccupazioni (We decided to go because we don't want to be a burden to you), about four elderly Greeks who decide to commit suicide rather than continue living through their country's economic misery. Other shows touch on environmental crises, Faucher says, such as J'aime Hydro, a "political soap opera" by Montreal actress Christine Beaulieu; and Jamais assez by French choreographer Fabrice Lambert, in a futuristic response to the burial of nuclear waste in northern Europe.

Two of the most anticipated shows are Milles batailles, a new duo work by dancer/choreographer Louise Lecavalier with Robert Abubo, and Go Down, Moses, by Italian theatre maker Romeo Castellucci. All those performances, along with the three evenings of Une île flottante, were sold out before the festival opened. A fair number of Faucher's imports originated in France or Italy, making this edition a virtual Festival TransAtlantiques.

Other shows that jump off the pages of the festival brochure include The Ventriloquists Convention, a bizarre near-documentary work by French-Austrian choreographer and director Gisèle Vienne; L'autre hiver, a new theatre-opera work about Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud conceived by Montreal director Denis Marleau; and Gala, Parisian Jérôme Bel's celebratory, festival-closing work for mostly amateur dancers.