From the outset, the setup in the new play Le Soulier is about as everyday as it gets: a woman takes her son to a dentist appointment.
But if you’re acquainted with the writing of Governor General’s Award–winning Quebec playwright David Paquet, you’ve probably figured out that things won’t stay ordinary for very long. And if you know the programming at Vancouver’s French-language Théâtre la Seizième, you know there’s bound to be something a little different or surprising going on.
In both cases, you’re right. “It starts somewhere normal, a dentist office, but then there are moments of magic and everything shifts and we are not in the world of the realistic,” explains the company’s artistic director, Esther Duquette, sitting in her West 7th Avenue office.
Duquette is codirecting the world premiere, commissioned by La Théâtre, with playwright Gilles Poulin-Denis—her partner, as the saying goes, in art and life. (As usual with their shows, this one features English surtitles on several nights.) Their previous joint effort was 2016’s Straight Jacket Winter, a wildly innovative, Jessie Award–nominated exploration of loneliness in Vancouver. They built that script together, so working with Paquet is a bit of a departure—but you can still expect the unexpected from Le Soulier.
“This is like having a third electron,” Poulin-Denis says, referring to Paquet, whom they’ve been working with closely over two years for the play’s debut.
“We wanted to be true to what he wanted,” adds Duquette. “If there’s a link between the two [Straight Jacket Winter and Le Soulier], it’s that we’re wanting to constantly surprise the audience and using theatricality to tell the story in a different way.”
In Paquet’s play, it quickly becomes apparent that the problems go much deeper than a toothache for Benoit, the boy who has a meltdown in the dentist’s chair. The plot jumps back and forth in time, showing moments again and again from different perspectives as it slowly reveals the truth.
Poulin-Denis notes it’s essential for the actors to have a clear sense of their own characters’ arc so they can find where they are on the shifting time line.
“It’s always great to see the actors’ gymnastics of being really precise in their movement and acting and switches,” he says. “Something very challenging for getting this script up on-stage is to find the comedy, but also the moments when the characters’ tragedies come through.”
“It’s like a roller-coaster ride: one moment you’re laughing and the next it can pierce your heart,” Duquette says, stressing that the show, despite its surreal touches, is really about people caring for one another.
On top of all this, Le Soulier has a physical component, with movement director and dance artist Noam Gagnon on hand to help those segments flow into the rest of the play. Without giving too much away, Duquette allows there is everything from a Zumba sequence to a karaoke scene.
With the creative demands of the script, it helps that Poulin-Denis and Duquette work together so well. It’s rare, after all, to have two directors on a play.
“It can be overwhelming for the actors, because two people are giving them notes,” Poulin-Denis says with a smile. “We know each other quite well, and we’ve been together for 13 years. We’re pretty much on the same page. But when we aren’t, it’s good for finding other possibilities.”
“Ninety percent of the time, we have the same vision,” adds Duquette, explaining that one of their biggest commonalities is approaching every script differently. “We like to push further. I can’t do the same thing over and over—and you attract new audiences that way, too.”
Théâtre la Seizième presents Le Soulier at Studio 16 from next Wednesday (February 27) to March 9.