No longer is there a “safe place” on the Canadian political spectrum; to be moderate is to be a mere bystander to fascism and anarchy, while to cling to either ideological extreme is to engage in bigotry or naïveté. Trump’s America leaves no room for a middle ground, nor does it open adequate space for level-headed debate; Trudeau’s Canada, according to Porte Parole’s unnerving verbatim play, The Assembly – Montreal, isn’t far behind. Gone, seemingly, are the days of the Canadian theatrical identity – sentimentality for its own sake, polite facades spackled over mid-left political leanings.
No: Porte Parole’s The Assembly – Montreal reminds the likely-liberal audiences of the National Arts Centre that the alt-right has found power in its Southern counterparts, and that these voices are capable of educated, well-supported debate. The Assembly – Montreal will make people fundamentally angry; some have already poked holes in the play’s assumption of audience intelligence, arguing that to platform racist rhetoric (regardless of dramaturgical intent) is to intrinsically support such language. On the contrary, Porte Parole’s verbatim triumph takes sides only in its structural curation of spoken lines; in humanizing voices on the far right, so too does this play enable its audience to think tactically in the political sphere.
The Assembly’s premise is quite simple: playwrights Alex Ivanovici, Annabel Soutar, and Brett Watson brought four Montreal residents of opposing political views into a sound booth for a round-table discussion in December 2017. The playwrights provided (perhaps in excess) wine, pizza, and difficult political questions, allowing the participants to guide the Trump-aware conversation in whichever directions they deemed necessary. The Assembly is a verbatim recollection of this conversation; that is to say, the lines spoken by the actors on stage are the same as those spoken by the real-life Montrealers over the course of the original discussion. Of course, an artistic license has been taken; stylized movement, “rewind” sequences, and ingenious incorporation of video bring the conversation from its 2017 roots into 2020 haunted not only by Trump, but by another upcoming US presidential election, an imminent Coronavirus pandemic, and a Canada divided into pipeline protestors and bystanders.
It’s grim; there’s no way around it. The Assembly – Montreal makes literal what we all (quietly) know to be true: engaging in cultural dialogue simply isn’t enough to effect change any more. The Assembly – Montreal knows that it makes its arguments in vain – that theatre has transformed from being a forum for diverse public discussion into being an echo chamber of generally-liberal qualms. Trump-sympathetic, conservative Valerie (portrayed in chilling layers by the excellent Tanja Jacobs) stands her ground against self-identified queer, Jewish anarchist Shayne (a sharp Jimmy Blais). Hope, the unintended mediator (and the closest we get to pacifism in this guns-blazing debate, played by a sweet Akosua Amo-Adem) makes the most of her comparably-little dialogue, and James (the lovely Sean Colby) brings to the table a dangerously-likable, millennial conservatism. These voices are extremely well-cast by director Chris Abraham; the chemistry between characters isn’t stretched beyond the confines of the verbatim framework. Abraham has full control over a globally-aware ensemble, one able to engage with a plurality of contexts at once.
I do not know if previous iterations of The Assembly responded to their dramatic criticism, but it’s worth pointing out that several minutes of the 2020 Ottawa production is dedicated to responding to J. Kelly Nestruck’s (The Globe and Mail) 2018 review of the show. The figures onstage defend themselves from Nestruck’s observations in a way that beautifully transgresses Canadian theatrical convention; they turn theatre criticism into a two-way conversation, and in doing so offer further material for discussion and analysis. The Assembly does not simply denounce Nestruck; they take him at his word and provide an (acceptable) explanation for the inclusion of a lengthy, verbatim mess of a Conservative call to action within the playtext. This self-awareness (and willingness to indulge in level-headedness within the realm of an otherwise-turbulent performance) solidifies The Assembly – Montreal as a powerful dark horse in the Canadian theatrical sphere. The Assembly – Montreal knows its place in the national dramaturgical canon, yet takes admirable risks in redefining its space. Porte Parole acknowledges a hulking American presence within the Canadian way of life, but the company also presents a singularly Canadian political identity for audiences to chew upon their exit from the theatre. The Assembly – Montreal is not an easy piece of theatre – far from it, in fact – but it’s one that ought to be considered necessary viewing for the vast majority of us who remain apprehensive for the remaining months of 2020.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.