BONJOUR LA, BONJOUR is sophisticated soap opera--the kind aimed at people who gag on the tepid nonsense shown on daytime television but thrill to tales of middle class soul rot served up as "serious" drama or Victorian novels.
Michael Tremblay, a French Canadian writer, makes several references to soap opera in his play, ironically acknowledging his work's kinship to all that sordidness. But soap opera, for all its low rent aspects, works because few of us can tolerate lives in which nothing ever happens. At least SOMETHING happens in a soap opera. The characters in Bonjour La, Bonjour sit isolated in chairs, hardly able to interact physically, hardly able to look at each other, almost totally unable to bear looking at themselves. Their lives would echo with emptiness were it not for their soap opera--their dramatic collapses that always seem to be in process but never reach an end.
A fancier noun for this genre is psychodrama, and Tremblay supplies the "psycho" in liberal portions. The central character, who sits on a stool at center stage, is Serge, a young man about 25 years old who has just returned to Canada from a three-month vacation to Europe. Around him, in their solitary chairs, are his four older sisters, two intolerable, hypochondriac aunts and his father who is so deaf he can barely hear shouts. During the play, Serge confronts the fact that the members of his family have made wrecks of their lives.
Lucienne, the oldest sister, sleeps with Serge's best friend because life with her rich, Anglo husband bores her to insanity. His two middle sisters lead grubby lives with their struggling lower middle class French Canadian husbands. Denise sublimates her frustration into gluttony and Monique pops pills and curses her travelling salesman husband for coming home only long enough to impregnate her. Serge's youngest sister, Nicole, sleeps with him. Meanwhile the old man and the aunts tear at each other as they sink pathetically into their graves. Everyone knows what Serge and Nicole are doing, but no one says anything up front. The atmosphere is stifling.
Serge and Nicole's incest in itself isn't the main theme. It's just an ironic twist that the only people who have a fulfilling love must break the most rigid taboo of society to share it. When Serge shouts through tears, "Poppa, I love you, even though no one's ever told you that because it's the kind of thing you don't shout!" we are closer to the real heart of the play.
There's nothing particularly new in saying that "normal" middle class life throttles vital emotions, but Tremblay overlays a complex weave of thematic concerns to avoid staleness. It isn't enough that one sister sleeps with Serge, all the others want to as well. They grab for him physically and spiritually hoping that if only he will agree to live with them they will be saved from their miserable lives. The two old aunts, who must sleep in the same bed even though they hate each other, add their pleas to the chorus. Jealousy, lust, hatred, infidelity, frustration--all swirl around Serge as he tries to reconcile his incestuous love with his obligation to his sick father.
Tremblay handles the cross currents with piercing dialogue, black and witty one moment and poignant the next. The playwright skillfully anchors his themes in specific references to the trials of French-Canadians in Anglo-dominated Canada.
With such a strong vehicle, the Eliot House production could hardly go wrong, and for the most part it doesn't. John Hall handles the difficult role of Serge with magnetic physical presence and emotional depth. He is believable not only as a caustic, wise-ass stud, but as a son desperately trying to communicate with his father, and he carries the show admirably.
Rachel Klayman as Lucienne portrays her vitally important character stiffly in the first act, but warms up in the second act when the emotions get rawer and easier to grasp. Klayman tosses away a crucial speech in which Lucienne morbidly reflects on her battle for material wealth and her discovery that wealth doesn't keep you happy or sexually fulfilled and the potential of many of Lucienne's first act lines have far more potential than Klayman uses. In the second act, however, Klayman articulates Lucienne's growing desperation effectively and brings the part back to life.
Carlos Dobal as Gabriel has perhaps the hardest part of all: a sixty-odd-year-old deaf man. Apparently Dobal and director Jeffrey Harper decided that Dobal should speak with the voice of a normal man rather than one who was old and deaf. Perhaps the fact that Gabrial has so many speeches--which could possibly be read as internal monologues--led them to this. At any rate, Dobal comes across as exactly what he is--a 20-year-old actor with silver paint in his hair. He doesn't convey enough of the decrepitude or pathos inherent in Gabriel's character. In a key scene with Serge at the end, however, he manages to expand into his role, and that helps forgive much of his performance.
The one truly disappointing character is Lisa Claudy's Nicole. Claudy looks like she belongs on the cover of a fashion magazine. Unfortunately, she fails to do much more justice to her character, even if one takes into account the script's peculiar lack of lines for Nicole. The lines Claudy has she delivers flatly, with hardly a trace of the storm that must brew inside a woman having a passionate affair with her younger brother.
The character parts, the aunts Charlotte and Albertine and sisters Denise and Monique, come as close as they can to stealing the show. Nora Seton and Lisa Beach as the cat-fighting old biddies successfully carry off the humor and hopelessness combined in their roles. Elise O'Shaughnessy gets a few good laughs out of her character, drooling alternately for mince pies and her brother and ultimately confusing the two. Amy Gutman delivers a frighteningly taut performance as the paranoid addict, Monique. In her long speeches the ragged nerves almost show in the lights.
In general, the production is well-paced and though it isn't perfect it does the job. Tremblay's script handles the rest.
Bonjour La, Bonjour leaves you to ponder Tremblay's attitude towards incest. It may not be right, he suggests, but incestuous love beats normal emptiness. Consider this challenge to the most ingrained prohibition in society, then consider that Eliot House is showing this play for free. There's nothing to lose but your prejudice.