WRITTEN ON WATER by Michel Marc Bouchard, directed by Micheline Chevrier, with David Fox, Doris Chillcott, Jerry Franken, Barbara Gordon, Carolyn Hetherington and Jordan Pettle. Presented by Canadian Stage at the Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front East). Opens tonight (Thursday, January 22) and runs to February 14, Monday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday 1:30 pm and Saturday 2 pm. $25-$77, some Monday pwyc and rush tickets. 416-368-3110. Rating: NNNNN
most directors won't admit to being intimidated by a script, but Micheline Chevrier acknowledges that she's a little scared of Quebecois playwright Michel Marc Bouchard's Written On Water. It's not the subject that's fearsome, though it is unusual. After a flood in a small village inhabited mostly by seniors, the works of a writing circle have been largely destroyed. The patriarch of the circle faces a mutiny when his peers want to rewrite their histories.
No, it's the emotions that give chills to Chevrier.
"I love the work, but it scares me to death. I've told everyone, even Michel Marc," she confesses with a laugh.
"His writing is so beautifully essential that you can't get away with anything. Some plays let you cheat a bit, but not here. There's no room to hide in his works. Boy, he keeps you honest."
Bouchard's poetry- and fantasy- tinged plays are special, in part because of the overt theatricality he uses to create powerful, fascinating worlds. There's the prison in Lilies, where the inmates recreate the past to show up a dissimulating cleric; the seaboard universe of The Coronation Voyage, where art, sex and politics are woven into a surprising tapestry; and the seemingly straightforward home in The Orphan Muses, where a family of siblings play elaborate games.
"Michel Marc's world is anchored in the rural geography of Canada," offers Chevrier, former artistic director of Ottawa's Great Canadian Theatre Company and currently an associate artist at CanStage, for whom she directed last season's Rice Boy.
"Yet it's a magical, incredibly evocative and totally recognizable place for any audience. There's always a wilderness of some sort, and in the middle of it he puts average characters who speak a heightened, poetic language. Their speech is almost operatic in its ideas and raw emotions."
The floodwaters that destroy the village in Written On Water are metaphoric as well as literal. In fact, Chevrier says she couldn't stage the piece without bringing water onstage in some fashion, since it's such a sensual, tactile element to deal with.
In a sense, it bookends the stories of the Roman Catholic village's inhabitants, for water is the essence of both the initiation of baptism and the destruction of the flood.
"But the metaphoric idea of water is equally important, especially in a play that makes metaphor one of its themes. This is a piece about writing stories, especially how you write your own story."
Perhaps the play's most striking figure is Danny, the only child who stayed when all the other younger people left the village. Gifted with an extraordinary memory and a natural writing talent, he's the obvious choice to take over the writing circle - if Samuel, who runs it, will allow him.
"That's the natural movement of history and evolution, that the young have to take over and the old must move along. But it's quite a battle."
Chevrier looks forward to seeing a Canadian play on the Bluma Appel stage that has neither an urban nor a historic setting, as have most recent pieces.
"This is our story, at a profound, fundamental level. It's about our history, where we come from."
And in a way that's a bit intimidating, too?
"Sure, a play this deep has a double edge, so that sometimes I feel stupid and other times I feel like I catch its essence.
"But I'll always pick that ambivalence over feeling smarter than the play I direct."