Have you ever watched a combination documentary, autobiography, psychological thriller, and stand-up special in the span of 1h 30?
Would you like to?
I personally have no idea what I had signed up for when I find myself in the dusty showroom of the Theatre Prospero. As the lights dim, all eyes turn towards a flat expanse of stage, backed by a huge projection screen like the sort they use in classrooms. The screen lights up, and being a kid raised in the 21st century, I think to myself: “Wait, is this a pre-recorded play? I thought I was coming to see real actors?” Nevertheless, I settle in, telling myself not to be disappointed and that I have faith that the director would make it work.
Already, the first blurring of the lines. i/O is about to make me question the reality of human nature.
Onscreen, we see the face of our host for the first time. Dominique Leclerc, playing herself in all her Québécoise glory. Her voice comes in through the microphones as she peers up at us through the camera lens, fish-eyed from the perspective. She could be backstage, she could still be in her studio, she could be anywhere. As if to punctuate that disconnect, she asks us if we still exist, whether or not Quebec or even Canada is still on the map. We get it. The audience laughs. She’s playing up the time capsule angle, exaggerating the distance between us.
Of course, that’s when the real Leclerc makes her entrance onto the stage, unassuming but for her goldenrod-yellow blouse and powerful stage presence. Her entourage follows her – two men, one rolling a tripod with a mounted camera. For all their newfound corporality, they look so small next to the screen.
Their faces are hard to make out in the dim lighting. The performance begins on two fronts: the camera feed is connected to the big screen, and as the cameraman moves, the film behind them moves accordingly.
The perspective tricks are so obvious, yet staggering in how they draw attention and then fray it apart. Leclerc turns to face the camera, away from us, yet towards us. I’m already getting dizzy. I don’t know where to look. The camera touches her illuminated face, traces the angle of her cheekbone and her moving lips. It’s more intimate than reality, where we are separated by fifteen feet of still air. She smiles, and it’s barely visible on her face. On the screen it’s all that I can see.
I/O’s unpredictable scenes cycle between the past, present and future. In moments of sober reflection, Leclerc shares with us memories of her late father. She acts out past experiences with an intensity that I can only imagine, bringing them to life as faithfully as any recording. It’s only during these scenes that we see what’s behind the big screen. It parts, sliding open in the middle, to reveal an illuminated shelf of objects, each marking a significant period of Leclerc’s life. The symbolism is a little heavy-handed but undeniably effective. With each ritual opening of the screen, the audience holds their breath to see what will be added, or what will be taken away.
Rarer are her disconnected, yet eerily familiar addresses to the audience, which feel like breaths of air as if surfacing from a still lake, or moments of waking from a tumultuous dream. It’s almost uncomfortable to be seen at a play. The audience is supposed to be an invisible, intangible observer. Leclerc observes right back with ruthless ease.
Finally, the interviews. They’re the only part of the show confined exclusively to the screen, and they’re jarring in a different way. These guest speakers include all the most avant-garde of Silicon Valley – AI developers, post-humanism supporters, and pioneers in cryogenics. They’re a reminder of the world outside – our world – yet in the heat of the play I feel so removed from these visions of faraway strangers, musing about the fate of mankind, so casually immersed in their dreams — or nightmares — of a future.
It’s like watching a ghost. I can’t tell if she’s the one who’s long dead, or we are. Her character is a narrator, the disembodied voice of some British man playing over an old episode of Animal Planet. Through her voice, we experience a shared story of grief and uncertainty. It doesn’t matter where she’s from. She is here with us now. She’ll be here as long as we keep pressing play. Ageless, intangible, but no less human for it.
Throughout the performance, the camera dominates. It’s a symbol of the industry, after all. The first form of performance that exists in 4D, it’s able to cheat space and time. Through it, Leclerc reconnects with her late father one last time – or a hundred last times. She looks away from the audience, and only under the camera’s relentless eye can we see tears glistening.
But I/O is far from a dour play. It’s lively, at times comedic, and – ironically – so very human. Suffused with life, so much of it overflowing. Every moment, Leclerc fights the big screen for our attention. She wields her physical presence like a weapon. She and her companions effortlessly draw out their actions, wavering across the line where the serious becomes overly serious enough to have the audience stifling giggles. Adding another sensory layer to the performance, Leclerc has an incredible vocal range. I am fascinated by her exaggerated voices as she dubs over an episode of the Japanese sci-fi classic Astroboy for us or mimics the heartbreaking sound of her childhood self beside her father’s hospital bed. Through her lips, sound traverses decades to reach us. Every word is a delight.
And, of course, there is plenty of nervous laughter. The kind of laughter that comes after a stomach-dropping reveal, short and breathless, where we laugh to hide our momentary discomfort, that jarring pause where we scramble for composure.
An emotional, comedic, and at times haunting experience, i/O is a consolidation of the many years Leclerc has spent immersed in the study of science and science fiction. She works primarily alongside playwright and actor Patrice Charbonneau-Brunelle, who scripted and played a supporting role in i/O. Together, they form the company Posthumains, which continues to produce incredible theatre interpreting the future of technology. i/O is a prime example, which I was honoured to see live (well, as live as it could ever be) as part of the Festival TransAmérique this year.
i/O is part of the Festival TransAmérique which continues until June 8. For details on shows, click HERE.
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