James Thierrée helps TOHU hop into its 14th season

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Award-winning circus performer James Thierrée says he usually likes to find titles that sound good in French. La grenouille avait raison, which launches TOHU’s 14th season next Thursday, certainly delivers on that score. (Its English title is The Toad Knew – still bonkers, perhaps, though not quite as elegantly so.)

But, he warns during a phone conversation with the Montreal Gazette, “don’t expect the title to be some kind of clue for the show. I always use titles as some kind of counterweight or contradiction. I hate it when a title is just an explanation for what you’re about to see.”

Even if you’ve learned about the show and think you know what to expect — well, think again.

“If you read about it, you’ll have found it described as a story about these siblings enclosed in a strange space,” Thierrée says helpfully, but then adds: “That’s all gone. Usually, as we tour, the first draft literally disappears under the different layers we add to it.”

This rug-pulling waywardness also applies to the much-celebrated sets Thierrée creates for his shows — junkyard wonderlands of grimy objects and rough-hewn contraptions with a mind of their own, dominated here by a self-constructing spiral staircase.

“They’re like this living entity — like a character, really,” Thierrée says of his designs, which were last on display when his troupe, Compagnie du Hanneton, came to TOHU with his one-man show Raoul in 2012. “That’s really the link I keep with circus — this dangerous relationship with the set. You can’t see much of circus in what I do anymore. I started on the crossroads of so many influences — my father started in theatre, my mother went into dance. I have no cultural identity, really, which is a great freedom and also a bit scary.”

But the question that must really be on everyone’s mind right now is: is there a toad in the show? Apparently yes, but explaining how, why or when would constitute a spoiler. Presumably, though, it’s part of the show’s “bestiary,” the creation of which is credited to a certain Victoria Thierrée, otherwise known as Victoria Chaplin.

As well as being Thierrée’s mother, she is, of course, the daughter of Charlie Chaplin (plus the granddaughter of the great American playwright Eugene O’Neill). But she has contributed more than genes to her son’s talent. During the late 1970s, she and Thierrée’s father, Jean-Baptiste, toured their anarchically dotty circus shows with five-year-old James and his sister, Aurélia, playing, among other things, a pair of walking suitcases.

Despite — or more likely because of — his remarkable pedigree, Thierrée is understandably reluctant to discuss his legendary grandfather in relation to his own work. (Just three when Chaplin died in 1977, Thierrée has no real memories of him.) It’s hard, though, not to be reminded of that iconic figure when watching Thierrée’s masterful physical clowning, the faux-Edwardian milieu that his shows evoke, or even that unruly mop of curly hair that causes him so much grief in his latest that he attempts to staple it down. In any case, family ties — whether of blood or otherwise — are clearly important to him.

“For me, everything is about family, even if the people with whom I work are not literally family,” he says. “Theatre is about creating families, and I try to put that in my shows. But it’s not a romantic view of family; it doesn’t become sentimental.”

La grenouille avait raison (The Toad Knew) does indeed feature a toad, but “don’t expect the title to be some kind of clue for the show,” says James Thierrée. “I hate it when a title is just an explanation for what you’re about to see.” (Photo: Richard Haughton)

The latest addition to his performing family is Sonia Bel Hadj Brahim, an accomplished dancer with an impressive line in breakdancing: an astonishing moment from the show sees her performing a move that seems to combine The Exorcist’s “spider walk” scene and its head-spinning scene at the same time. Having replaced a contortionist in an earlier incarnation of the show, Brahim has contributed a strong element of street dance that Thierrée has gratefully absorbed into his own performance.

As well as being an acrobat, clown, director, choreographer, designer and now dancer, Thierrée is also a much in-demand screen actor these days. This year he won a César for his brilliant supporting turn in Chocolat, where he plays the performing partner of Rafael, the Cuban ex-slave-turned-circus clown. Thierrée, however, isn’t new to film. In his teenage years, he played one of three Ariels in Peter Greenaway’s Shakespeare deconstruction Prospero’s Books. He also starred in French director Claude Miller’s penultimate film, Voyez comme ils dansent, a love story partly set in Montreal.

Thierrée’s first love, though, remains performing on stage.

“Really, the only reason I put on shows is to be on stage,” he says, “even more than to be a director. With this show, I wanted to go back to the feeling I had when I created my first show 20 years ago — that first impulse and raw experience of just playing around with fellow performers on stage. It’s a way of living intensely.”

And then, at last, he offers a tangible clue to that title. “The toad is perhaps a symbol of that desire.”

AT A GLANCE

La grenouille avait raison is presented from Thursday, Sept. 28 to Saturday, Oct. 7 at TOHU, 2345 Jarry St. E. Tickets cost $35 to $60; $25 to $50 for students and those aged 25 and under. Call 514-376-8648 or visit tohu.ca.

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Circus, siblings and a reference to little green creatures also feature in another show playing next week. The Goblin Market is a sexy, adults-only slice of “boutique circus” from the Dust Palace, New Zealand’s leading circus-theatre company. It’s returning to Centaur for three nights only after an acclaimed visit there last year.

Based on a poem from Christina Rossetti, it uses an array of spectacular skills, including some dreamy cavortings in an aerial hoop, to tell the story of two sisters struggling to survive seduction by sexually voracious goblins. “Boutique circus,” by the way, means that it’s “small and choice, focusing on the details of the circus arts to make something magical,” according to an email from co-director Eve Gordon, who also plays one of the sisters.

It is, by all accounts, surreally, spectacularly erotic and hauntingly augmented by a soundtrack that includes 1960s songs, 21st-century instrumentals and classical music.

AT A GLANCE

The Goblin Market is presented from Wednesday, Sept. 27 to Friday, Sept. 29 at Centaur Theatre, 453 St-François-Xavier St. Tickets cost $39; $34 for seniors; $29 for students. Call 514-288-3161 or visit centaurtheatre.com.

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