Elephant Wake an experience of openings and closures

November 14 at C103 was an evening of openings and closings. Of course, Elephant Wake – Catalyst Theatre’s first international critical success – opened to a full audience. Running until November 29, it will also close out Catalyst’s time at C103 (formerly known as Catalyst Theatre) and help the company open a new chapter in their history.

First, Catalyst’s exciting news: beginning in September 2015, Catalyst Theatre will be the company-in-residence in the Citadel’s Maclab Theatre. Similar to the arrangement the Citadel has with Rapid Fire Theatre, Catalyst Theatre’s administrative offices will also be onsite at the Citadel. Catalyst Theatre’s upcoming production of Vigilante will be presented at the Citadel Theatre in the Maclab Theatre in March. With the entire nonprofit sector, including the arts, moving to a shared services model and Catalyst Theatre’s immense success over the last 20 years, this partnership makes total sense and I’m sure it will allow the Citadel and Catalyst Theatre to expand  both their artistic endeavors and their respective audience sizes and composition.

And now, on to Elephant Wake…. There’s certainly a reason why Elephant Wake is an international success and continues to be performed 19 years after its first incarnation. I couldn’t agree more with what co-creator and actor Joey Tremblay said in our conversation about the play: the piece is highly imaginative, engaging, and moving no matter each audience member’s lived experiences. As Jean Claude, Joey Tremblay draws us in to Ste. Vierge – both it’s glory days and its present status a ghost town. We feel the joy and the excitement of the Christmas gatherings, Sunday mass, and impromptu dance parties in Pépère’s living room. By the same token, we also feel the town’s loss when the café, the grocery store, the school, and even the church are closed. The play is a tribute to what the now desolate Ste. Vierge was to Jean Claude and stage upon which for him to reveal his master plan for how to revitalize the town.

Catalyst has set up a fascinating display of memorabilia from Catalyst’s shows over the years in the lobby. The panel right beside the theatre entrance shows photos and reviews of the first production, and I found it especially interesting to compare the set in the photos to Bretta Gerecke’s set today. I love how Bretta has maintained the essence of that original set – the bare bones of it and the feeling that you’ve stumbled into somebody’s barn littered with things they’ve collected over the years. Yet, you can still see the distinctive aesthetic Catalyst has become known for over the years.

Going into the production, I knew Elephant Wake would be a strangely personal experience for me. My hometown in Saskatchewan has a population of 75 people. 151 if you include the rural municipality. The town where I worked one summer – 8 minutes down the road – has a population of 1 person (no, that’s not a typo). The stories Jean Claude tells about Ste. Vierge could have been my stories. The town grocery store closing. The school closing and the children being sent elsewhere for school. The church closing. And families moving into those closed up buildings before abandoning the town forever.

Thinking very literally about Elephant Wake before seeing it, I wondered how a play with such a seemingly specific topic would appeal on such a broad scale. But, in fact, the play is truly about celebrating the one-time existence and mourning the loss of a community, not just a town. Elephant Wake‘s sustained success demonstrates that this is a common universal theme that audiences around the world and across the decades relate to.

As the sole performer, Joey Tremblay is enchanting. When Joey appears onstage as Jean Claude, it only serves to magnify the sense that we’ve stumbled across an old man who just starts telling us stories. The familiarity Joey seems to have with the audience and our association of him with the stereotypical talkative old man or woman I’m sure we’ve all come across immediately makes you want to engage and respond to him. The way he engages with the audience seems totally natural and completely unscripted – despite the fact that, at least according to an old draft I found online, most of the banter and off-hand comments that seemed improvised are actually part of the script. That it still feels improvised though Joey has performed it many times over the years is a testament to Joey’s skill.

Adding to the improvised feel is Joey’s expressiveness. Instead of just imitating Ste. Vierge’s former residents, he allows us to truly be part of Ste. Vierge by his transformation into the various townsfolk in demeanor, vocal tone, and facial expression. Not only do we get to observe the different town residents, at one point we become them by singing along with Jean Claude during one of the masses he sings at. The way Joey uses not only props, but his body to gesture and create the various artifacts that he talks about is also gorgeous to watch. One of my favourite moments in the play is when he shows us the elephant he and Mémère created. The expressiveness Joey uses to tell Ste. Vierge’s story helped me truly see the glory of the way Jean Claude has devised to reinvigorate the town.

No matter what communities you have been or are a part of, Jean Claude’s story is one we can call relate to. The grace with which Joey Tremblay tells Jean Claude’s story made me feel as though I had truly been there and witnessed St. Vierge’s transformation from a bustling francophone community to little more than a memory along with Jean Claude.

Elephant Wake plays at C103 until November 29. Tickets are $22 – $24 through Tix on the Square. November 16 is pay-what-you-can at the door.

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