It’s the time of year to hang an elf from the mistletoe, leave a severed foot in the Christmas stocking, and lace Santa’s milk and cookies with strychnine. Failing that, there’s always Urban Tales, Theatre Urbi et Orbi and Centaur’s cheerfully curmudgeonly holiday ritual, now in its seventh year.
Usually, the only thing the collection of locally-manufactured monologues has in common is a healthily bad-ass attitude towards the season of goodwill. This year, though, there’s the unifying principle of the Seven Deadly Sins, with the Horned One himself on hand to make sure things don’t get too cosily festive.
The mood is set from the off with death metal band Sanguine Glacialis thrashing away on a skull-encrusted gallery: if it doesn’t quite turn the cabaret-like seating area into a seething mosh pit, it certainly braces the audience with a we-can-take-it sense of anticipation as each performer emerges from a tinselly Hell’s Mouth ready to dump on Christmas.
Urban Tales creator Yvan Bienvenue kicks things off with the tale of a cheapskate parking lot attendant (Jimmy Blais) who happens upon three gifts in the back of a Mercedes. None of them turns out to be gold, frankensense or myrrh, but – without spoiling the surprise – there’s a touch of Wile E. Coyote and a dash of Bienvenue’s trademark cheerful vulgarity about them.
Bienvenue’s priapic preoccupation is echoed in the next story, Joanne Sarazen’s take on lust featuring a perkily optimistic blow-up doll (Joanna Noyes) with celebrity-mimicking curves and orifices, and “the trusting eyes of a golden retriever”. Inevitably, such trust leads her into some very grubby places indeed.
Next up is Justin Laramée’s Dostoyevskian tale of a tax inspector twisted into paroxysms of envy by a high-achieving doppelganger. Pier Kohl spits venom and sweats vitriol in an uncomfortably recognisable – and very funny – display of the gathering rage of the forgotten Everyman.
And then comes the pre-intermission highlight of the show, with Greg MacArthur brilliantly indulging his penchant for outlandish horror in a queasy tale of decadent gormandizing. MacArthur name-drops Quebec’s aristocracy for easy laughs while at the same time brewing up a surreally imaginative storm. Performer Danny Brochu electrifyingly conjures up a mood of crazed (un)holy theatre in a story that involves roadkill finger food, Russian gangsters and prehistoric hallucinogenic meat.
It would be overstating it to say things go downhill in the second half. The performances – Danette MacKay as the exasperated mother of a slothful loser, Paul Van Dyck going spectacularly ballistic, and Linda Smith as a quietly humane murderesss – still manage to be funny and sharp while bringing in an extra touch of human warmth that’s sometimes missing in the mischievous misanthropy of the first half. But the texts here (by Simon Sachs, Harry Standjofski and L.M. Leonard respectively) feel a little less focussed, as well as being more tenuously connected with both Christmas and the Deadly Sins they’re riffing off. And where’s Old Nick suddenly got to, just when you need him to keep those sticky moments of sentimentality from creeping in?
By this time, though, largely thanks to Standjofski’s tight and playful direction, not to mention the driving grunge of the live band, the audience are fully on-side, whooping it up almost as much for the sensible sweaters of the second half as they do for the mad, disreputable toys of the first.
Urban Tales is at Centaur Theatre to December 13.
Alex Woolcott is a freelance writer based in Montreal