Centaur does its best to conjugate Michel Tremblay's Past Perfect
Michel Tremblay’s Past Perfect is anything but perfect. It is pluperfect – at least it would be if its title were to be translated literally from the French version, which was called Passé antérieur after a tense used in French to denote a past action that occurred before another, more recent, past action.
With me so far? Hopefully so, because we have more conjugating to do. As is often the case with Tremblay, a sort of imaginary Bescherelle is needed to fully appreciate this play.
The grammatical bent of the title makes sense: Past Perfect is a "prequel" to Tremblay’s 1984 play Albertine in Five Times (Albertine, en cinq temps), in which he explores five stages – from age 30 to 70 – in the life of a truly horrible, haunted, guilt-ridden woman, one of the most famous heroines in the Québécois dramatic canon. The one-set, one-act Past Perfect covers the events that set in stone the personality of the tortured Albertine, and fills out another branch of the sprawling genealogical puzzle that spreads through Tremblay’s oeuvre.
A taste? Albertine is the sister of Edouard and the daughter of Victoire and Josaphat from La Maison suspendue. Jean-Marc, also of La Maison suspendue as well as Le Coeur découvert and Les Anciennes odeurs, is Tremblay’s most autobiographical literary character and Albertine’s descendant. Albertine will also later become the sister-in-law of Alex, father of Claude, the hero of Le Vrai Monde? Or something like that.
In Past Perfect, Albertine lives in a basement suite in an Old Montreal tenement with her sister Madeleine, her brother and her parents. Her father, a drunk, has left the concierge duties to her mother. Albertine, who works as a waitress at the American Spaghetti House to feed her family, escapes her trapped existence by plotting to regain the affections of her lover Alex, who has ditched her to date her older sister Madeleine. At 20, Albertine is a control freak, a borderline obsessive-compulsive delusional who, throughout the play, chain-smokes in the living room, waiting for Alex to arrive to court Madeleine. As she waits, conversations with members of her family reveal the true depths of her dementia, until her thwarted desires reach a fever pitch.
Fans of claustrophobic set pieces in which maddened women spiral downwards while waiting on a man will find just the thing in Past Perfect. But with it, Tremblay is revisiting well-trampled territory both within his own oeuvre and the whole of Western theatre. Moreover, Past Perfect may be a fascinating period piece about Montreal in the ’30s, but while Tremblay entices his hometown audiences with familiar geography and genealogy, there isn’t exactly enough to hold on to. The story harkens back to past familial trauma we can’t possibly understand and the forward motion of the script seems to foreshadow events that never happen in the play’s universe.
It’s all this that the Centaur’s English-language debut production of the play has to overcome. (Unfortunately, the show’s program doesn’t come with any kind of background text, which would have been a big help to the uninitiated right off the bat.) Patrick Clark’s evocative set, with its torn-out plaster-and-lath wall, does its best to create a sense of time and place. For their part, the cast (featuring Catherine Allard, Manon St-Jules, Paul Thomas Manz and Sasha Roiz) do an excellent job of rendering the play’s tight, back-and-forth dynamics. Yet we still find ourselves longing for the bigger picture outside the tortured anteroom in which all the action happens.
Which may, indeed, be the point. Tremblay’s latest play, Impératif présent, performed last fall in French at the Théâtre de Quat’Sous, explores the relationship between Alex (the paramour who spurns Albertine for her sister Madeleine in Past Perfect) and his son. So the story goes, conjugated ever forward.
until March 7