Le Soulier drills into unseen emotional landscapes, with surreal set pieces and abundant laughs

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      By David Paquet. Directed by Esther Duquette and Gilles Poulin-Denis. A Théâtre la Seizième production. At Studio 16 until March 9

      As he writhes in agony, suspended in a cerulean limbo, a young boy’s suffering seems inexplicable and intensely personal—until his movements give way to the mania of a waiting-room tantrum, and the perspective change jolts audiences to consider the divide between our psyche and what’s perceivable. Le Soulier’s opening image is one of many that perfectly embody the play’s exploration of unseen emotional landscapes, which gingerly uncoil through humour, candid admissions, and surreal set pieces.

      Eight-year-old Benoit (Félix Beauchamp) has had a toothache for three days, and his mother, Mélanie (Annie Lefebvre), has taken him to the dentist to investigate. Hélène (France Perras), a chatty receptionist with a penchant for drink, strikes up a conversation while dentist Siméon (Joey Lespérance), timorous but adept, examines Benoit for cavities. At this point, David Paquet’s script takes an expressionist turn and nothing is what it seems. To start, a full claw hammer is extracted orally.

      Paquet’s play is one of psychological likeness and contrast, and both physical tics and personal histories evoke his characters’ affinity for one another. Benoit’s frenetic fits, comically classed in stages that range from "neo–Francis Bacon" to “epileptic King Kong”, find a close cousin in Siméon’s outbursts of social anxiety. Conversely, Mélanie’s dissatisfaction from raising a child with a behavioural disorder begets a severe disclosure by Hélène that recontextualizes her frustration, and explains the latter's love of a disadvantaged animal. Honouring subjective experience while still acknowledging their varying magnitudes, the writing feels sophisticated and balanced.

      Esther Duquette and Gilles Poulin-Denis tightly direct stagecraft to create a seamless show, amalgamating their collaborators' disparate designs to maximize mood and transitions. Noam Gagnon’s movement work dazzles, highlighted by Benoit's idiosyncratic breakdown and Siméon's zany dance moves, while the whole ensemble convincingly mimics rewinding when actions comically reverse to repeat scenes through different eyes.

      Malcolm Dow’s sound and Itai Erdal’s lighting bathe the intimate auditorium in splashes of expressive colour and ominous aural foreboding, which modulate Drew Facey's patterned costumes and trio of curtained white rooms.

      Last but not least, the acting quartet is wonderful to witness, robust and physical.

      For a play that dares to broach the delicate matter of mental health, Le Soulier is remarkably funny, and consistently elicits laughter in every scene. From movement-based comedy, like Siméon’s attempts at Zumba, to the unabashed candour of Hélène, who goads Mélanie to explore a repressed sensuality, there is a lightness that stays faithful to the work. Nonetheless, to borrow from Siméon’s sobriquet for Benoit, it is also a kind of “Kinder Surprise”: you may come for the comedy, but stay for its lucid observations.