Misery loves company, in this case in the form of a sadistic dance competition.
Quebec-based Thé¢tre Niveau Parking has recreated Horace McCoy's Depression-era novel, one later made into the Sidney Pollack film They Shoot Horses, Don't They? starring Jane Fonda.
This time, it's set in the prim, Catholic world of Québec City during Prohibition, where a sleazy bootlegger named Ludger Drouin is looking to ease some of the gloom of the Depression with a weeks-long dance marathon. While everyone's enthralled by the contest, Drouin is preparing to run a load of booze over the border undetected.
Dozens of couples in various stages of desperation -- a bankrupt lawyer and his wife, moony newlyweds, an aspiring actress and her thuggy boyfriend -- sign up for the competition, seeing salvation in the $1,500 prize money.
And thus begins their physical and emotional dismantling at the hands of Drouin.
This is not an uplifting play, but the existential despair creeps up on you. In the beginning, as we meet the five couples, there are laughs and cheerful, jazzy dance numbers that hearken back to the roaring part of the 1920s.
The newlyweds, played by Krystel Descary and Sylvain Perron, are about to have a baby. They're the innocent, hopeful centre of the first act.
Élizabeth Blondeau, played with brittle despair by Catherine Hughes, is the lonely young woman who has lost all faith entirely, except for the escape promised by the $1,500 prize money. Her fate defines the second act, and the play.
After we've fallen for the couples, the action gets creepy. The turning point comes when Drouin (played with a mean veneer of ringmaster charm by Jean-Michel Déry) reveals his true colours by making all the participants abandon their Catholic modesty, strip to their slips and underwear and run a humiliating derby. A whirlwind ensues onstage, and the three slowest get eliminated.
As Drouin then targets individual participants, his manipulation eventually infects the dancers. The wife of a shell-shocked World War I soldier desperately seduces the newlywed husband. The would-be actress's boyfriend steals her fancy pink party dress so she'll waggle her bum for more tips in just her slip. Until now, in her pink dress, she's been the only hint of colour and glamour amid all the other drab, almost featureless costumes.
All the while, the audience stands in for Québec City's masses, watching the emotional disintegration, the physical exhaustion and even the death of some of the dancers, like it's The Bachelor or Fear Factor.
There are 11 people on Cercle's small black-box stage, but, under the direction of Marie-Josée Bastien, the precision of the choreography and the staccato dialogue is so polished that it's never confusing, always engaging.
Indeed, some of the most poignant moments are physical, like when the men hoist their exhausted wives and girlfriends into their arms.
By the end, something like Day 20 of the competition, as Élizabeth Blondeau says, they are no longer human.
The final scene, a murder born of mercy, is about as intense as anything you'll see on stage this season.
On achève bien les chevaux
-- Le Cercle Molière
-- Until Feb. 4
-- Address: 340 Provencher.
'Ö'Ö'Ö'Ö out of five