Photo by Rolline Laporte.
The Salon Automaton, which opened earlier this week in its English-language debut at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, is the most unique show of this theatre season, and an absolutely world class piece of theatre. Maybe you’ve seen the arresting poster art, featuring perfomer Nathalie Claude photographed through a fisheye lens in a Caligari-esque set, surrounded by three other people who, on a second look, might not actually be people. And they aren’t. Not exactly. Although their pre-recorded voices are provided by actors Moynan King, Clinton Walker, and Leni Parker, Claude’s onstage co-stars are actually three life-size animatronic automatons. You know, like this. A popular nineteenth century novelty, today automatons are the kinds of things you might remember from a goofy theme-park ride, or a school field trip to some stuffy historical house, but Claude’s show transports them into the world of contemporary theatre, where they are allowed to be as magical and astonishing as they must have seemed more than a hundred years ago.
Claude plays the Hostess, a cheerful woman terribly devoted to her Friday salons, where she entertains her favourite guests: the Drinking Patroness, the Cabaret Performer, and the Dandy Poet. All of whom happen to be robots. When the Hostess first appears, we wonder if she might be too. Or if she thinks she is. Her makeup mimics the detachable-jaw look of her automaton pals, her dress style makes her look like an overgrown doll, and, at the beginning at least, her movements are limited and very mechanical. But as the night wears on, she seamlessly brings the Hostess more and more to life, to the point where she is moving and talking more or less like a normal human being, but has arrived there so gradually we never even noticed the change until it had already happened. She and her guests talk, snack, play games, and drink (yes, the Drinking Patroness can “drink” champagne!), all the while hinting at a dark truth lying beneath the surface of the strange artifice of the salon.
Although Claude’s performance is obviously the focus of the piece, the work of all three voice actors is also exceptional and worthy of acknowledgement. In particular, Parker’s Drinking Patroness is a real hoot. And the design of this show is as good as you will see anywhere. The automatons are a marvel of craftsmanship and artistry, but so is the bird cage/cupcake set. Such attention to detail! Walking into the space, you pass a series of small bird cages filled with chirping, mechanical birds, and as you leave, a single cardinal whispers “Goodbye.” And it all comes together to create a show that explores mortality, consciousness, religion, and robot fun as impressively and enjoyably as a season of Battlestar Galactica. Full marks!
The Salon Automaton runs until December 12.