Theatre Maisonneuve

With its Everyman title and its effacing costumes of drab overcoats, fedoras pulled down tight, and clunky boots for men and women alike, Joe presents itself as a post-Metropolis fable for our time. First presented as part of the international festival of new dance in Montreal, this performance piece, choreographed by Jean-Pierre Perreault, has been revived in an expanded form. The setting is one of generalized, industrial bleakness, a vast blue-lit area marked off by rectangles, with a stage-wide ramp upstage leading to “windows” (which open onto blank space). In this logical hell of a futuristic factory, a regimented clump of humanity, 30 performers in all, move in unison. Their marches on the amplified stage create a rumbling, thundering aural accompaniment to their robotic gestures. As the phalanx charges around, some figures occasionally split off, propelled in an opposite direction, or fall to the floor, or huddle together apart from the larger mass. All eventually rejoin the herd, which has gone its way without noticing their temporary defections.

At one point, some sort of frenzy overtakes the group and they begin to hurl themselves at full speed onto the ramp, crashing heavily onto the raked stage and sliding in contorted, skewed postures back to the level floor. Reforming in a square, the “Joes” tramp even more mechanically and quickly around the stage, repeatedly running down the solitary Chaplinesque figure who breaks away from the crowd in a skipping, flighty dance. He is caught and rejoins the mob. Another figure starts to play a harmonica, very softly. The mass of undifferentiated figures slows, stops, and squats in clusters, as if bedding down for the night. Then the cycle of activity begins again.

Like many such blank-slate scenarios, Joe lends itself to a certain portentousness. A bastard theatrical offspring of Samuel Beckett by way of Kobo Abe, its “universality” (anonymous figures, bleak landscape, reduced gestures, cyclical narrative) can be taken to mean everything—and nothing. Life is Cruel, Life is Pointless, Life is Habit: the postwar credo of Euro-existentialism. What saves Joe from an overload of neomythic Meaning is its extreme physicality. The drill-team precision and physical abandon of its performers makes its mise-en-scène a viscerally powerful one. The thrust of the group’s geometric, stage-measuring marches, the thud of 60 boots and 30 bodies on an amplified stage, and the sheer mass of the large cast’s physical presence provides a strong material counterpoint to the work’s easily summed-up conceptual agenda. Despite its monochrome look and hopeless message, Joe is vibrantly alive.

John Howell