Props take on tragic life of their own in PuSh Fest's L’Homme de Hus

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      Though nobody else is on-stage, Camille Boitel’s L’Homme de Hus doesn’t feel to him like a one-man show. The multidisciplinary artist shares the performance space with 140 wooden sawhorses of the kind used to support tables in public markets across France, which take on a life of their own—or, more accurately, a series of lives. With this small army of props Boitel uses physical comedy, circus, and dancelike movement to explore timeless, and ultimately tragic, aspects of the human condition.

      “The materials are almost as active as the character, who’s trying to do something very simple—to stabilize things,” he says, reached at a tour stop in Whitehorse, and speaking in French. “Confronted by moving, living, and uncontrollable matter, he doesn’t know what to do. The sawhorses come to resemble animals, or the bones in charnel houses, or other things, and can transform themselves into some kind of a machine. One scene, ‘The War’, is totally out of the Middle Ages—an attack with siege machines. At times, with the sawhorses as giant vertebrae, you feel something that’s even more ancient—prehistoric.”

      L’Homme de Hus premiered in 2003, the very first show by Boitel, who’s now regarded as one of the leading creators of French nouveau cirque. The work has its origins in a poem by one of France’s leading writers of the past century, concerning the biblical figure of Job. The title of L’Homme de Hus (The Man From Uz) is one of the epithets given to Job.

      “In the beginning, I was working with my former partner Bénédicte Le Lamer—who came from a theatre-school background—and we found a poem by Paul Claudel about Job, speaking out when he’s completely destroyed both physically and mentally, having suffered all the misfortunes possible. It was something very strong for us as a starting point.”

      L’Homme de Hus is divided into three parts, with nine scenes or, as Boitel calls them, sequences in all. “Each sequence blends into the next, without necessarily a transition. It’s very fluid. Apart from the sawhorses, the only props I use are a stool, a chair that folds in a special way, and the costumes I wear—one in particular is very expressive. The sound is live, except one sequence that features sounds that we recovered from a broken CD.”

      For this remarkable work, Boitel drew inspiration from traditional fairs, early burlesque shows, and comic stars of the silent-film era—above all Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. “I use the same kind of language and rhythm as old-time burlesque performers,” Boitel says. “I’ve spent time, too, with the Chaplin family, who’ve kept some of those rhythms. They work very well. It’s a tool—but it’s not a form for me. What I really like is the tragic aspect. I use the tools of comedy to make something that’s tragic, which Chaplin also did, of course.

      “For me, the circus aspect is the vertigo effect experienced by the audience fearing an artist’s misstep or accident,” he adds. “People are afraid for me. The fairground-theatre aspect comes from the use of sawhorses for simple stages that could be set up and dismantled easily and quickly. That tradition has gone, but it’s what street and fairground performers used to do in France. So we make theatre with the main parts of what was once the stage itself.”

      L’Homme de Hus is at the Vancouver Playhouse on Friday and Saturday (February 1 and 2) as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.