Theatre band Belzébrute juggle elaborate costumes, combat choreography, puppetry, live music and pseudo-Japanese dialogue in the micro-budgeted yet epic-scaled Manga!
Even though they had played at Fringe before, only last year did the members of Belzébrute feel that they had truly experienced the festival to the fullest, not only presenting a play of their own, Shavirez, Gypsy of the Sea, but also attending some 25 other shows and hosting Fringe-moi, a daily bilingual webcast featuring profiles of artists, pre-taped skits and live performances.
"We would go see a show, do ours, then we’d go see another show, hang out at the beer tent, check out what The 13th Hour was doing," remembers Caroline Fortin. "It’s so fun to be in the midst of Fringe, to live to the beat of the festival."
Belzébrute ended up winning the 2010 Spirit of the Fringe award, which made the small independent company, which defines itself as a "theatre band," particularly happy because its members had been feeling for a while that they were a perfect fit for the festival. Generally not at ease with the institutions that rule over Montreal’s French theatre community (Carte Prem1ères being a notable exception), they appreciate the looser, more open attitude that makes Fringe unlike any other event.
"There’s usually kind of a divide between francophones and anglophones at Fringe, but we wanted to break through that, we wanted to get to know the English companies," says Jocelyn Sioui, referring to the way they approach Fringe-moi (which Belzébrute will host again this year), but also to the decision to have their new play, Manga!, do away with language barriers. "We were wondering how we could do a show that would be without boundaries. Then came the idea of doing it in pseudo-Japanese…"
SYMPATHY FOR LADY VENGEANCE
Not unlike Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, which Belzébrute acknowledges as an influence, Manga! is a revenge tale taking place in a colourful, off-the-wall universe informed by Japanese pop culture, from samurai and martial arts films to kabuki theatre, anime and, of course, manga.
"It’s neither a homage nor a spoof of manga. We were inspired by it, but we’re not necessarily big fans of the genre," admits Éric Desjardins. "The idea for Manga! came up during a brainstorming session and we all lit up, we figured it’d make for something really fun visually," says Fortin. "Japan is so beautiful, and there’s something mysterious about it… It was curiosity first and foremost that guided us," adds Amélie Poirier-Aubry.
Telling the story of Ritsuko (Caroline Fortin), a Japanese woman conducting a vendetta against the evil shogun (Jocelyn Sioui) who killed her parents, Manga! is the second part in a "trilogy of vengeance" that started with Shavirez, Gypsy of the Sea and will conclude with a third instalment that will have Belzébrute tackling another iconic genre. "After dealing with pirates and samurais, we’re going to make a western," reveals Sioui. "We love brainstorming and coming up with crazy ideas. Then the challenge is to realize them with the limited means we have!"
The concept of having the dialogue spoken in "pseudo-Japanese" proved more challenging than planned. "We though it was really funny at first, then less so, because it wasn’t easy to make it intelligible so that people could still follow what was happening," Sioui recalls, before assuring us that he and his colleagues eventually cracked the code, and that the end result is "like watching a silent film – the action speaks for itself." Desjardins, who plays more than a dozen characters in the play, said, "It’s like acting in a language that’s not your own, you really let yourself go in the emotion. Right away, during the first scene we acted out, we were like, ‘Damn! It works!’"
The company’s most ambitious project to date, Manga! required much DIY ingenuity on everyone’s part. "The costumes were all made with recycled fabric. We asked people to give us old drapes and stuff, and we received some wonderful things. The guy who did the sets [scenographer Mathieu Poirier-Galarneau] also used recycled materials," explains Fortin. Other artists who contributed to the creation of the show include Jacinthe Massey, who did the drawings that are projected on stage, and Clémence Doray, in charge of everything from stage management to lighting design and marketing.
Music plays an integral role in Manga!, with Poirier-Aubry playing various instruments on stage, in full costume and makeup. "I have a bass drum and a floor tom which stand for a Japanese taiko, and I made myself a small Japanese guitar, what they call a shamisen," she says. "I also play harp and flute, I sing and I play sound effects on a keyboard with my feet!"
First performed at Mainline Theatre last January, the show has been revamped for its presentation at Fringe, with Belzébrute specifically focusing on making the second half as "crazy" as the first. Owing as much to film, cartoons and comic books as it does, Manga! is bound to attract an audience that doesn’t usually go to see plays. "A lot of people who never go to the theatre see our shows and love them," Jocelyn points out. "People are thrilled to see a fantastic universe brought to life on stage, often through simple but clever and fun ideas. Like, we gave Ritsuko some puppet legs so she could do high kicks in the air."
"I’m not flexible enough! And I can’t fly!" Fortin explains.
Fringe at La Chapelle (3700 St-Dominique)
June 11-12, 15, 17-19