theatre review


by Evelyne de la Chenelière, trans. Morwyn Brebner.
Touchstone Theatre at Vancouver East Cultural Centre
November 4-13
$22/$18 plus sc
604-280-3311 or

When a play is described as whimsical, offbeat, quirky, charming, an out-of-season treat--do alarm bells go off? Does Strawberries in January try too hard to be an unconventional comedy, or is it genuinely different from the rest, an off-kilter ménage à quatre? It's from Quebec, after all, which doesn't guarantee theatrical success but at least offers Vancouverites cultural différance of the je ne sais quoi variety.

Nerdy Francois works in a Montreal coffee shop and writes screenplays. He's in love with his roommate Sophie, who prefers older, more exotic guys. Francois shares his desires and frustrations with Robert, a somewhat down-at-heels French lit professor who likes younger women and has an affair with Léa, an innkeeper in the country, who just happens to be Sophie's oldest friend. Eventually, Robert and Sophie start dating and Léa turns up at Francois' bistro. Francois the screenwriter obviously fictionalizes some of the play's events so that we're never quite sure whether what we're seeing is "real" or a scene from one of the movies in Francois' head.

There's nothing terribly original about Evelyne de la Chenelière's script, but it is witty and gentle, and Katrina's Dunn's Touchstone production also finds its whimsy and charm. Much of the success is due to the wonderful work of Haig Sutherland as Francois, around whom the action swirls. As the lovable loser whose decency, intelligence and sheer persistence inevitably win the day in romantic comedy, Sutherland never strikes a false note. Katey Wright's Léa is almost equally adorable, though her character is the most problematic, stuck for most of the play outside the main action, struggling as a single mother with a baby that we never see. Dawn Petten, who pretty much owns the quirky young female roles around here these days, is often very funny as Sophie. But she seems sometimes to bring the exaggerated, overly demonstrative acting style which Sophie exhibits in many of Francois' "movie" scenes to her "real" scenes, which is particularly jarring in juxtaposition to Sutherland's consistently naturalistic style.

Morwyn Brebner's absolutely idiomatic English translation is one of the most successful renderings of the québecois that I have ever heard on stage. The only thing that doesn't translate is Donald Adams' portrayal of Robert. His affected east-of-mid-Atlantic accent makes no sense for the first half of the play until it's revealed that he's from France. But even then I felt he was playing affectation more than character, especially when he and the playwright deliver university professor stereotypes that are decades out of date.

Yvan Morissette's attractive set design features one of the only revolves I've ever seen in the Cultch along with an unusually blatant theatrical instance of product placement in the prominent branding of corporate sponsor Bean Around the World. Director Dunn effectively utilizes the revolve along with Hannu Huuskonen's dramatic music and Alan Brodie's fluid lighting to keep the narrative dynamic. She helps maintain the fine line between fantasy and reality through devices such as a running mime gag to open and close the café door, and a lovely Robert Lepage-like transition in which the café becomes a laundromat by virtue of clothes falling from the flies and a stool opening to become a laundry basket. At such moments, with all its elements working effectively together, this strawberry is very sweet.

Jerry Wasserman

last updated: Tuesday, December 28, 2004 8:20 PM
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