By STEVEN HOWELL
---- — MONTREAL — This may very well be the wildest ride of your life. Exact change only, please.
The Centaur Theatre presents “The Number 14,” a crazy, kooky ride aboard the Number 14, an actual bus that snakes it way through the streets of Vancouver. On that bus, you’ll meet quite a collection of characters: an acrobatic granny, a not-yet-dressed-for-work real-estate agent, a bevy of businessmen, a group of old-timers on their way to the bingo hall, an assembly of rowdy school kids on a field trip... In all, some 60 passengers — masterfully played by a cast of only six actors — are going about their daily routines.
“It’s kind of like vaudeville on a bus,” said Roy Surette, Centaur’s artistic director and one of the original writers of the work as well as the original director.
“The Number 14” celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. The work was first produced by Axis Theatre and Touchstone Theatre in Vancouver.
“We wanted to explore modern commedia dell’arte in a way,” Surette said of the Italian-style theater genre that employs a multitude of half masks.
“And there were just some really funny people around me when I was at Touchstone Theatre,” he said.
Surette said Axis Theatre, which was formerly called Axis Mime, focused on physical theater, and clown and mask work. Surette worked closely with mask designer Melody Anderson.
“Melody made these amazing masks,” Surette said.
A group of “really good physical-theater people” soon formed, he said.
“At the time, there was a real renaissance of off-the-wall creative work happening,” Surette said. “We wanted to explore the concept of rich and poor, master and servant — we wanted to cover all of society.”
Some brainstorming ensued.
“We first created characters and masked characters, but we still didn’t know what we were doing in terms of a plot,” Surette said. “And then Melody came in one day and said, ‘What about a bus?’”
The collective lightbulb went off.
“Suddenly, everyone had stories, memories and images about riding the bus,” Surette said. “Think about it, public transit is a place where everybody crosses paths. It’s short and sweet, you’re in and you’re out, but it’s where you encounter the rich, the poor, different races and nationalities. They all meet each other in this milieu.”
Deciding on what bus was fairly easy once the idea took shape.
“The Number 14 is the bus that covers all of Vancouver,” Surette said.
The actual bus line winds its way from Burnaby at the Kootenay Loop, follows Hastings Street, dissects the downtown core, makes its way to West Vancouver and finally circles back to where is all began.
“So in its broadest form, it’s the day in the life of a bus.”
In its 20-year history, “The Number 14” has enjoyed not only a ride through Vancouver, but a successful run around the world.
A toned-down version first debuted in Vancouver at area high schools. The current bawdier version soon made its way to Vancouver’s Firehall Theatre. It has since traveled to, among others, Ireland, Israel, Hong Kong and Off-Broadway, where it was nominated for a New York Drama Desk award.
Surette suspects that this may be the play’s final run.
“And that’s why I wanted to bring it to Montreal,” he said. “I’m a bit sentimental about it.”
In addition to the play making it to a celebrated two-decade milestone, there is one prop that has endured as well. Way back when, Surette had received a gag gift — an ostrich squirt gun. It somehow made it into “The Number 14.”
“It’s still in the show,” Surette said. “And no matter if the show continues, I want my squirt gun back.”
Steven Howell is the author of Montreal Essential Guide, a Sutro Media iPhone travel app available at iTunes.com.IF YOU GO WHAT: "The Number 14." WHEN: Through Sunday, May 26. Most performances are at 8 p.m., with some Wednesday and Sunday performances at 1, 2 and 7 p.m.; check with the box office. WHERE: The Centaur Theatre is at 453 St. Francois Xavier St. in Old Montreal. ADMISSION: Adult tickets cost $42.50 and $47.50, depending on day of performance. Discounts are available for seniors, those 30 and younger, students and matinees. CONTACT: Call the box office at (514) 288-3161, or visit www.centaurtheatre.com.