A play that kicks down the language barrier

Persephone Productions presents bilingual romcom Des Fraises en Janvier / Strawberries in January.

Sound designer Dylan Gouze, Karine Lefebvre, Simon P. Therrien, director Davide Chiazzese, Olivier Lamarche and Tania Dos Santos. Photos by Robby Reis
Language is a constant in this province, the source of many an argument and many a relationship. It is the thing that lures some people here and repels others. And as the last election and previous tenuous PQ minority government has shown us, concern over language is far from dissipating — it remains vibrant and tense.

But knowing this, see the upcoming production of Des Fraises en Janvier / Strawberries in January and ponder whether we haven’t made a breakthrough when it comes to linguistic sensitivity.

Strawberries12_ReisA French play is being staged by an English production company, with a cast of bilingual performers, in the languages of both Shakespeare and Molière. Pick your night, pick your language. Either way, you’ll see the same cast acting out the same words.

The material itself is far from political: Des Fraises en Janvier / Strawberries in January features a quarter of twentysomething Montrealers trying to find love and companionship.

Fledgling writer François (Simon P. Therrien) hopes to find a muse and lover in his friend Sophie (Karine Lefebvre). But Robert (Olivier Lamarche) is also interested in Sophie, though his affair with longtime mutual friend Lea (Tania Dos Santos) might threaten to upset whatever shot he has.

“It’s like four people intertwining, and you’re not really sure what’s going to happen between them, but there’s love in the air, and it’s a really light-hearted romantic comedy,” recounted Lamarche when I spoke with him and his co-star Lefebvre last week for Upstage on CKUT 90.3FM.

Strawberries3_ReisThe show is “perfect for seven-degree weather,” interjected Lefebvre with a smile. “I think that girls and guys can really find themselves in any of the characters.”

Persephone Productions, which has a mandate to employ developing talent, has chosen a former performer, Davide Chiazzese, to make his solo directorial debut with Strawberries, following training as a director with Black Theatre Workshop and Teesri Duniya.

The surrealist romcom was penned in French by acclaimed playwright Évelyne de la Chenelière in 1999; Strawberries is the third play in the local playwright’s long roster, and she later won a Governor General’s Award for the 2006 play Désordre public. If you’ve seen the Oscar-nominated Quebec film Monsieur Lazhar, you’ll recognize her writing; the film was based on her play Bashir Lazhar.

Strawberries was translated into English by Morwyn Brebner, a National Theatre School graduate, and has been presented around the world in Italian and German.

Lamarche feels that the dual language presentation is a friendly invitation to all: “I think it’s really important in the city that we’re in to be inclusive and have everybody decide to come whenever they want.”

Strawberries13_ReisThe four performers are bilingual, and toggling between languages in rehearsals and line memorizing wasn’t a stretch.

“I do it in my everyday life. I can speak 50-50. So it is something that comes naturally,” said Lefebvre.

It’s not unusual to have actors straddle both sides of the language divide; I think of actress and singer Dorothée Berryman gracing the Centaur, and stage and film performer Catherine Bérubé, who performed in both the English sci-fi TV series Being Human and the French cop drama 19-2.

Offering up a French and English version for audiences to select is something different entirely. However, both actors insist that the decision is motivated by a love of theatre, not politics.

“I think that a lot of people feel like we’re getting thrown back into the past with everything that’s been going on in the past year, but the play isn’t really tackling any language issues at all,” explained Lamarche. “It’s important that we’re doing the play in both languages, but the goal is certainly not to make a huge statement or anything. It’s just a way to open the door up.” ■
Catch Des Fraises en Janvier / Strawberries in January at the Centre Culturel Calixa-Lavallée (in Parc Lafontaine). The English run begins April 24, 8 p.m., 2 p.m. matinée on April 27. Shows alternate between French and English — to see exact dates and details, visit lavitrine.com or call 514-225-1750