Caravan of Illusion features music, clowning, ‘street performance’ aesthetic

A taste of Brazilian circus-theatre is coming to the University of Ottawa with a lively production of Caravan of Illusion, set to open Tuesday, March 20.

The Brazilian play, written in the early 1980s when Brazil was under a military dictatorship, follows three itinerant artists and circus performers, a mute musician, and a traveller woman. The three circus performers are brothers with a lifetime of circus experience behind them, but with the death of their father, they are forced to find their own path in life.

“It’s the story of three artists that are brothers, plus a musician that walks with them,” said Ludmylla Mar Dos Reis, a master’s of fine arts student in the theatre department, and the director of the play. “They are travelling artists, and they see a forked path, but this time the have no leader so they have to decide which way to go. This then gives a voice to what they want in life … the tradition that their family has been carrying for a long time starts to be questioned.”

The play was popular in Brazil as a subtle critique of the ruling dictatorship, but the questions it asked about the role of art in that oppressive society were left behind when the dictatorship fell. People wanted to put those days behind them and create a new culture, explained Mar Dos Reis.

“The themes that we see throughout the show are: what is an artist, what does it mean to live an artistic life, do we value art,” said Mar Dos Reis.

But those themes are fitting in Canada, particularly in Ottawa where institutions like the National Arts Centre, Canada Council, and the federal government must make decisions about art funding all the time, Mar Dos Reis said. It’s also fitting in university, as STEM careers are routinely touted over the arts.

“This questioning of art and artists matters a lot at school,” she said. “I’ve done my BA in acting before, the master’s, and those questions actually keep popping up.”

The play persisted as a popular street performance after it fell out of favour in large theatres, and that street performance element bleeds into this stage production.

“The aesthetics of the street where you kind of get everything together is something that we brought (into the play),” said Mar Dos Reis. For instance, the actors play a homemade tambourine and cigar-box guitar instead of store-bought instruments.  

“The simplicity and the assembly and the size, we borrowed from (the street).”The play strikes a balance between quiet and loud, tender and funny—all the things, Mar Dos Reis said, that a skilled artist needs to be able to do.

Mar Dos Reis, who trained in Brazil, initially found the English-Canadian theatre process jarring. She wanted to be collaborative whereas her Canadian actors expected her to come in knowing exactly what she wanted. Eventually, she struck a balance.

“Yes, I prepare everything, but I always find time to collaborate with my actors,” said Mar Dos Reis. “Their creativity gets sparked, and then I see what they bring together as a group … and then I start negotiating.”

“My favourite thing about directing was to be able to assemble all of our ideas together and then find my way to get a vision from everyone’s voice.”

Caravan of Illusion runs March 20–24 at 2 Daly Ave at 8 p.m. Tickets are $5 for students and can be bought at the door or on Eventbrite.