Salon Automaton: Bravo to Us All

nathalie claude. photo by rolline laporte (rolline@videotron.ca)
Sometimes I see productions that prompt me to take a moment simply to appreciate the creativity that was required to produce such a unique piece of theatre, and that was the experience I had in the audience of Nathalie Claude’s Salon Automaton (The English Language Premiere) playing until December 12th at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.
We are introduced to Nathalie Claude’s perfect hostess, a woman who runs The Salon Automaton, a place where she and her guests, the Dandy Poet (voiced by Clinton Walker), the Cabaret Artist (voiced by Moynan King) and the Drinking Patroness (voiced by Leni Parker), convene each week to discuss societal matters, but only to the point of inspiration as to avoid confrontation and unpleasantness among them. What makes this play instantly fascinating is that Claude is performing with three turn-of-the-century automatons who have been programmed to speak and move their eyes, mouths and arms as “actors” in the production. The result is that, especially at first, the play resembles the grown up version of a child’s tea party with her or his stuffed animals, and Salon Automaton offers all the same challenges, such as how three automaton guests can be expected to drink champagne or eat cucumber sandwiches. On the surface, at least initially, this play plays with all the conventions of the absurd, lofty, yet continually flippant, conversation that was such a staple of society in the Victorian and Edwardian Eras. Here, all the conversations are constructed simply to exude an aura of cleverness, importance and to allow for the ego to become both swollen and stroked, yet all the characters speak with meticulous diplomacy and the three automatons are obsessed with appearing to be the most polite, the most refined and courteous of guests. Of course, the irony is that, as automatons, everything that they do and that they say is inherently superficial and completely devoid of emotion or intellect.
Nathalie Claude’s intentions are deliberately vague. Throughout most of the play I found myself wondering whether Claude’s character, the hostess, knew that her guests, and her only friends, were robots, or if the automatons were tricking her in a sort of science fiction type twist. It seemed as though the audience was meant to associate the automatons with the genial society members from this period in history, which made me wonder if the Dandy Poet, the Cabaret Artist and the Drinking Patroness were merely being represented as automatons because their real-life counterparts were similarly programmed and obsessed only with the way in which they constructed their own reality to be seen and judged by others. I also wondered if I was meant to make a connection between the way these societal robots interacted with one another a century ago with the way in which we conduct ourselves in the society of the present. How much are our interactions with one another programmed deep within us? “Hello, how are you?” “I’m fine thank you, how are you?” Certainly one could make the argument that many of us bustling through the 21st Century with our Ipod or cell phone at our ears have many of our communications on autopilot. Then, just as I began to think that perhaps I had grasped the message that Claude was trying to make, the play suddenly became very dark and with the darkness came an unexpected amount of black, twisted humour and several plot twists that I won’t ruin for my readers, except to say that they simultaneously answered a lot of the aforementioned questions, while raising a whole new set of them. Where is the line between reality and robotics? Can an automaton be programmed to have emotions, and if one is programmed to “feel” sadness and to exhibit the outward signs of pain and anguish, how different is that from being human? The automatons are “forever un-living and yet undead”, which contrasts sharply to Claude’s hostess, who continually must face her own mortality. At the same time, this play is a very creative examination of the fact that although it may appear that we are surrounded by others, often we are actually “toute seule.”
Nathalie Claude gives a passionate and fascinating performance creating a portrait of a woman who enjoys being indulged, having her robotic friends encourage her to play the hostess, the pantomime actress, to create her own automated world where everything is perfect, perfectly happy, which provides an escape from a precarious reality where that is not necessarily so.
Salon Automaton is a play that I would recommend because despite the fact that it may feel a bit long at times, it offers its audience a lot to consider about humanity and the world that we live in. It is also, perhaps, the most innovative piece of theatre that you will see in Toronto this year.
Salon Automaton plays until December 12th, 2009 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (12 Alexander Street, Toronto). For tickets and more information please call 416.975.8555 or visit www.artsexy.ca.

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