Stage Door Review

Le Club des éphémères

Saturday, April 2, 2022

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by Alain  Doom, directed by Dillon Orr

Le Théâtre du Nouvel-Ontario & Le Théâtre français de Toronto, Berkeley Street Theatre, Toronto

March 30-April 9, 2022;

Salle Trisac, Collège Boréal, Sudbury

April 20-23, 2022

“Si tu ne me regardes, je n’existe pas”

Le Théâtre français de Toronto is currently presenting the Toronto premiere of Le Club des éphémères by Alain Doom. The play had its world premiere at Le Théâtre du Nouvel-Ontario in Sudbury in March 2020 and, as a coproduction with TfT, was to have transferred to Toronto, but Covid struck and the theatres closed in Ontario after only four performances in Sudbury.

TfT regulars will remember seeing Doom (pronounced like “dôme” in French) as a moody Arnolphe in TfT’s L’École des femmes in 2011. But Doom, besides being an accomplished actor and director, is also a playwright and, on the evidence of Éphémères, one who demands our attention.

The premise of Le Club des éphémères is that the five female residents of a retirement home learn that a young male filmmaker is travelling to Nipissing, Ontario, to interview them about the annual plague of shadflies that descends on the town every year. Shadflies are better known as mayflies outside Northern Ontario and are proverbial in world literature for their shortness of life. In the play the five women refer to the shadflies both by their local English name and by their French name éphémères.

For those unfamiliar with the creatures, the most common shadflies in Northern Ontario live as larvae in the bottom of lakes for about two years. When the water temperature reaches about 20º C., the shadflies emerge as adults. Their order is called Ephemeroptera because the adults live for only one or two days. Their sole purpose is to mate. They don’t even have fully formed mouths for eating. Once they mate, the females lay their eggs on the water and die and the males fly off and die on land, covering all surfaces with their millions of corpses. The simultaneous emergence of all adult shadflies in a particular location is a strategy to minimize predation. North Bay is especially known for its annual infestation of the insects.

The five women pass on this information in the course of the play, but they are more preoccupied with another event that occurred in Corbeil just outside of North Bay. In 1934 this is where the Dionne quintuplets were born, another example of simultaneous emergence one might say. In this case, they were the first quintuplets known to have survived their infancy and still the only known identical quintuplets to have survived into adulthood.

Stating that it wanted to protect the five girls, the province of Ontario made the quints wards of the province and then proceeded to turn them into a tourist attraction for the next nine years. At its height seeing the Dionne quintuplets in their specially built exhibition room drew more tourists than did Niagara Falls. The province returned the quints, when they turned 18, to their unloving parents. The original family homestead was turned into a museum, but their fame waned as other quintuplets and sextuplets were born around the world. The museum was slated for demolition in 2016 before the citizens North Bay demanded it be preserved as historically important.

In Le Club des éphémères the five women who are scheduled to be interviewed about shadflies are also in the midst of rehearsing a play about the quintuplets. Not only that, but the five women are each named after one of the quints – Cécile (Esther Beauchemin), Annette (Hélène Dallaire), Émilie (Marie-Hélène Fontaine) Yvonne (Geneviève Langlois) and Marie (Diane Losier). As one of the women says of the quints, “Les jumelles sont notre miroir”.

Doom forces us to view the five characters of the play through two sets of images related to ephemerality – the short life of the shadflies and the short-lived fame of the Dionnes. To achieve this Doom’s play involves so many coincidences that it is better to view the work as a symbolic meditation on impermanence than to try to view it in a realist mode.

In fact, the very structure of the play calls attention to its own artifice. Scenes switch from the audition pieces of each of the five to be in the play, biographical monologues in which each details some form of abuse from a man, information from all five about the habits of the shadflies and choral declamations from the group’s play-within-a-play about the Dionnes.

Marie acts as the director of the group’s play and, feeling she has the most stage experience, coaches the others in how to act for the camera. She tells the others to speak their lines directly to the camera as of it were a potted plant. People entering the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs should note that there actually is a potted plant in the middle of the back row. This visual joke serves to undermine the realism of the play. Costume designer Melanie McNeill has all five women wear Shirley Temple wigs with hanging ringlets, imitating the popular hairstyle the Dionnes wore. The women’s wigs are identical in style but not identical in colour as if to undermine the women’s attempts to impersonate the Dionnes.

What Doom constructs from all these images and all these far-fetched coincidences is a postmodern meditation on the transience of life and art. Retirement homes, unfortunately, have become a modern cliché for a place where people discarded by society wait for death. Doom does all he can to counter this view by showing how active and lively his five seniors are, how excited they are to be part of a film, how serious they are about putting on a play. Nevertheless, he can’t avoid showing that the thought of death underlies all this activity.

Why a young filmmaker would want to interview precisely these five women about shadflies is the strangely inexplicable premise of the play. In fact, it is so inexplicable that when we see how giddily the women start rehearsing what to do and say for the director we start to wonder whether any such film is being made. By the end the idea starts to look like a folie à cinq.

Marie, who is the most enthusiastic about the film, thinks their appearance in the documentary will make them “movie stars” (she uses the English phrase). Not only is that highly unlikely, but Marie’s notion of movie stars refers mainly to films like Casablanca (1942) or Sunset Blvd. (1950), which she quotes in English. Marie’s views of what “movie stars” are and what “Hollywood” is are comically antique. The ideas of “stars” and “Hollywood” live on in art but not reality. This is the same with the Dionne quintuplets, of whom we can get an idea only through the few films they appeared in.

Why the five women identify so much with the quintuplets is also a mystery. Even though the quints’ fame faded, at least they had a moment of glory. The women have had neither. What they do share with the Dionnes, however, is being abused – the Dionnes through exploitation by the province, the five women by nasty men they had encountered. The Dionnes had no way to bring harm of their exploitation to light until three of the surviving quints demanded and received compensation from the province in 1997. What Doom’s women did is a secret they have long kept hidden.

In a play so laden with symbolism and so self-conscious of the genres of film and theatre, what holds our attention are the virtuoso performances of the cast. Director Dillon Orr has mustered his cast into an absolutely solid ensemble. They know how to match each other precisely when changing their performance styles according to the shifts in the text – from realism, to acting in a play-within-a-play, to acting for a camera, to unvarnished confessional, to a mysterious form of choral acting that seems to function as a commentary on the play. At the same time, Orr has drawn out the distinct personalities of each of the characters.

Diane Losier plays Marie, the most lively of the five. She makes us relish, along with Marie, Marie’s favourite parts of her favourite movies. She makes us laugh at Marie’s feeling of innate superiority to her fellow inmates. But, when the time comes for the truth, Losier lets all of Marie’s pretensions dissolve to reveal quite a different woman underneath.

As Cécile, Esther Beauchemin is probably the second most lively of the five. Beauchemin portrays Cécile as outwardly meek but intellectually aggressive. A repeated source of comedy is how Beauchemin shows Cécile, a former teacher, politely but firmly correcting the pronunciation of the others or inserting obscure footnotes to their speeches. She is the one who explains that the “shad” in shadfly refers to a type of fish that feasts on the dead insects and she even in her delicate pedantry quotes a passage from Madame Bovary (1856) where Flaubert makes reference to the shad (“alose” in French).

In contrast to the positivity of Marie and Cécile, the Yvonne of Geneviève Langlois is negative and dismissive. Yvonne feels the others are making fools of themselves in their enthusiasm for the documentary and speaks in a consistently gruff tone of voice. Yet, in her audition piece and in her biographical piece, Langlois shows that Yvonne has a completely different, more sensitive side. Langlois suggests that Yvonne’s present medical condition has made Yvonne a hard, unpleasant woman as a way of avoiding the others’ sympathy.

Hélène Dallaire makes Annette a softer version of Yvonne. Annette, originally a Polish immigrant, has a number of chips on her shoulder. She didn’t fit in as a native Franco-Ontarian and she is a minority among Ontarians in general and among Francophones in Canada. Dallaire implies that Annette’s sense of displacement has left her embittered, but not so angry that she repulses the others’ friendship.

Marie-Hélène Fontaine has long been a favourite at TfT as in À toi, pour toujours, ta Marie-Lou (2011). She plays Émilie as the most outwardly sensitive of the five, so sensitive, in fact, that Émilie is almost a comic figure except that Fontaine gives Émilie such an air of melancholy that we can’t laugh at such a person. As with the four others, Fontaine’s confessional at the end of the play reveals that our initial view of Émilie gives us no clue as to the inner passion and strength she commands.

In only 80 minutes Doom has created a play more packed with meaning and more profound in its implications than most of the Canadian plays I’ve seen in the past 20 years. One viewing does not feel like enough to sort out the play’s mirror-in-mirror effect, its interplay of fiction and reality, its concern with death as both victim and agent, its fear for what time erases and what it leaves behind. What is certain is that Le Club des éphémères could not have a better production. Plays for mature women are rare enough. A play for mature women with so much substance and so much theatricality is even rarer. Le Club des éphémères offers a masterclass in the art of acting no theatre-lover should miss.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Diane Losier as Marie, Hélène Dallaire as Annette, Marie-Hélène Fontaine as Émilie, Geneviève Langlois as Yvonne and Esther Beauchemin as Cécile, © 2022 Denys Tremblay; The Dionne quintuplets, © 1943 AP; Esther Beauchemin as Cécile and Marie-Hélène Fontaine as Émilie; Diane Losier as Marie, Marie-Hélène Fontaine as Émilie, Geneviève Langlois as Yvonne, Hélène Dallaire as Annette and Esther Beauchemin as Cécile, © 2022 Denys Tremblay. 

For tickets visit theatrefrancais.com.