World Gone Wrong

MONTREAL IS GRAPPLING with an economic recession, but judging by the way it treats its artists, you'd be hard-pressed to believe it. In the neighborhood of Centre Sud, a kind of Francophone East Village, the dance-theater company Carbone 14 resides in a space many an artist would shed blood for. It's a renovated jam factory, rather blandly named Usine C (Factory C), but step inside and you'll be astonished. Carbone 14's home is a bilevel maze of high-ceilinged rehearsal studios, a spanking 450-seat theater, production offices, a posh café with a wine list, and even a small gallery. No starving artists as far as the eye can see. And then there's the best part--Usine C is subsidized by the arts-friendly Canadian government.

Still, it's a subsidy for a more than deserving tenant. Carbone 14, a presence on Canadian and international stages since 1980, has a crowded and illustrious résumé. Rooted partly in the innovative mime tradition of Etienne Decroux and known for its exacting, interdisciplinary approach, the company is a theatrical icon in Quebec. Among audiences there, the term Carbone 14 denotes unpredictable innovation first, and only then the radioactive element after which it was named. This week, Montreal's unstable performance entity will bleed south of the border, with an appearance at Northrop Auditorium as part of the 1997-98 Discover series; and the show promises to have a long half-life in the audience's memory.

Carbone 14 artistic director and founder Gilles Maheu--a man easily distinguished by his incongruous bursts of childlike giggling--talks about his penultimate creation, The Dead Souls, in a stream of grim, fitful sentences. "Reality today is running ahead of us," Maheu says. "Life has become too chaotic. Society is ghettoized. There are no collective pleasures, only individual ones. The idea to begin working on The Dead Souls came to me when I saw a junkie shooting up in the alley outside Usine C. It was the middle of the afternoon. He saw me and he didn't even turn away."

Heroin abuse may be the launching point for The Dead Souls, but the performance is hardly a Just Say No campaign, or for that matter, a Trainspotting revival. In fact, on the surface, The Dead Souls is justifiably spooky: an old, haunted house, populated by all manner of restless spirits. There is the old man and his granddaughter, a 19th-century peasant couple, fin de siècle debutantes and their gentlemen callers, a pair of heroin-addicted lovers, and a gang of marginal ghosts. It's a highly imagistic play set on brightly hued tableaux, and the action shifts between the characters after blackouts the length of deep exhales. Each time the lights come up again, we witness a different facet of the house's memory: the peasant couple silently eating soup as the wind howls outside, a woman washing the body of her nude lover, half a dozen drug addicts quivering and convulsing on the floor.

Sometimes, the spirits cross paths. In one of the production's more memorable moments, the beginning and the end of the century collide like stellar bodies in dark night. The setting is an upper-crust soiree in the living room. Two young patrician couples are chatting, drinking, and charming each other to a Mendelssohnian strain of piano. Suddenly, the music morphs into a high-powered, pounding cello and a pair of leather-clad Gen-Xers burst onto the scene.

Screaming "Marie!" and "François!" they run after each other, furiously slamming doors behind them and throwing the two couples into a whirlwind. The men fall and roll to the ground, the women spin off-kilter and nearly crash into the furniture. Seconds later, the storm is over and the couples return to socializing, as if nothing had happened.

Maheu's message, though fragmented, is an urgent one: Our lives are tempestuously out-of-sync.

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