Saturday 7 January 2017

The (Post) Mistress sings of small-town Canada
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

Editor's note : As we are unable to attend this year's On Tour production, the following is a re-working of BLR's February, 2016 review of the play from its BMO Goldcorp stage presentation.

From the footlights : The (Post) Mistress brings to life Marie-Louise Painchaud ("hot bread"), postie-extraordinaire in the town of Lovely, ON. Lovely is near the copper mining mid-size city of Complexity an hour away at the northern tip of Lake Huron. Through what seem to be cosmic & heavenly juices in her veins, Marie-Louise absorbs all of Lovely's inhabitants' secrets just by holding the townsfolk's mail in her hand.

Subtitled "The Small-Town Musical of Sealed Secrets", the show is a single-actor piece that features a dozen songs with English, French and Cree lyrics. The layered stories of Lovely's residents are filtered through Marie-Louise's yeasty and risible imagination. Neither cabaret pastiche nor full-on musical, The (Post) Mistress engages musically what it might lack a bit by way of compelling dramatic arc. Still, anyone who's lived small-town rural life will remember how the expression "You've got mail!" once meant receiving an actual paper envelope with a 6-cent stamp on it. 

How it's put together : Accomplished dancer, performer and singer, Patricia Cano is Marie-Louise (though Cailin Stadnyk will do select performances). Cano has long accompanied playwright Tomson Highway as  singer/performer in the various cabaret shows he's traveled around the world. 

Brazilian guitarist and composer Carlos Bernardo is her long-time friend, meanwhile, and in 2008 she spent six months absorbing the Carioca sound scene in Rio with him. Thus cross-pollination being what it is with creative folk, quelle surprise Mistress features tango and bossa nova beats along with a couple of South American storyline detours. 

But also a host of Berlin cabaret stylings -- Highway once jokingly referring to himself as the Cree version of Kurt Weill -- as well as French cafe chanson and pop renderings to boot. 

What the show brings to the stage : For BC viewers this is a singular piece because of all the Central Canada native Cree, French-Canadian, and Metis influences that converge in the unique Lovely time and place way-&-gone back east.

With Western influences being a mix in recent years mostly of WASP, South Asian and oriental folk, to hear stories and tales that spring from post-contact native generations who mix and cohabit and populate with French immigrants and their descendent Quebecois is eye- and ear-opening in a rich and colourful way. 

Mistress may be called a "small-town musical" but really it's just a fleshed-out series of cabaret tunes starting with the Cree ballad "Taansi, Nimiss" (Welcome, sister!) that sets the stage for "songs we're going to sing". 

Eleven songs in all by the Highway / Cano collaboration that each tells a tale of love, loss and sizzling snatches of sex : "It was so hot in Rio de Janiero they wore nothing but dental floss to go shopping!" Cano sings of one such letter-writer's escapade. 

Letter after letter, story after story : widow Eva Pocket who hooked up, fatefully, with Marly Fitzsimmons from N'Awlins. Diane Gagnon who ran back to mom's in Lovely to escape her boring taxi dispatcher husband and the kids. He writes plaintive futile pleas for her to return. 

From a younger perspective there's eight-year-old Babette whose mom, madly estranged from her dad, has 100% forbidden Babette to see him out West. So Babette writes of her pain from a Grade 3 hand. She cries out as she gazes up at Ursa Major and Ursa Minor in the song "Oh Little Bear". Exquisite ache.

Acting pin-spot : Patricia Caro as Marie-Louise Painchaud is a one-woman force majeure. While her original forte was as a dancer and then a community theatre player, singing she added to her repertoire through her connection with Carlos Bernardo plus a sojourn a decade back to South Korea to study with a voice master. 

Luxuriant in size, beauty and presence, Caro's blocking, choreography and inspired dance footwork hopping atop and around the various stations and platforms at the Lovely post office were all quite exhilarating to behold. Whimsy and humour and controlled exaggeration informed every step, every pirouette, every pounce. Caro's vivre ballroom break-dance is reason enough to see this show.

On the songstress scale, Caro is an accomplished cabaret balladeer with a rich and resonant contralto though not always equal to the higher register notes. But her dusky smoky basement blues joint sound -- sexy and edgy both -- brings out the best from Highway's tunes and lyrics. That a majority of the house on opening night gave her a standing-o reveals the enthusiasm her performance attracted.

Production values of note : Director John Cooper and Choreographer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg grab top-spot honours for the rigour and inspiration they brought to Patricia Caro's Arts Club debut performance a year back. 

As well, Ted Roberts turned in yet another superb set, lighting and visual design performance. The current Canada Post m.o. banality of countless mailboxes -- but done here rising to the infinity of space in a sworl design -- was effective. 

Music accompaniment limited to piano and sax/flute was crisp and lively and just-right subtle, too.

Two Hmnnnn...! script reservations. (1) The plot revelation at the end about Marie-Louise. Quite artificial and contrived and unnecessary to the stage magic. The mystery of her cosmic mind-reading would work better remaining a tease. (2) Preaching. Telling the audience straight-up "I hope people will learn to stop hurting each other and learn to laugh..." is flat-out patronizing despite its good intention. 

Who gonna like : This show is not the compleat stuff of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, but it has many comparable moments. Patricia Caro's vigour & enthusiasm & deft fancy dancework and singing prowess are a package of talent to leave viewers breathless. This is a show that brought out grins of enthusiasm and standing-o clappers from the seats a year back. No question it will appeal to cabaret lovers who are open to some poignant Canadian history lessons put-to-music. 

Particulars :  Book & Music by Tomson Highway.  On Tour by ACT's : at The BlueShore @ Cap College, January 7 [604.990.7810].  Surrey Arts Centre, Jan 11-21 [604.501.5566]. The ACT Arts Centre, Maple Ridge, January 22nd [604.476.2787]. Evergreen Cultural Centre, Coquitlam, January 24-28 [604.927.6555]. Kay Meek Centre, West Vancouver, January 30-31 [604.981.6335]. Shadbolt Centre for the Arts, Burnaby, February 2-3 [604.205.3000]. Clark Theatre, Mission, February 4th [1.877.299.1644].  Run-time 140 minutes including intermission.  Schedule information & tickets via or by phoning 604.687.1644 or contacting the On Tour venues directly.

Production team :  Director John Cooper.  Choreographer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg.  Set, Lighting & Video Designer Ted Roberts.  Costume Designer Kirsten McGhie.  Musical Director Michael Creber.  Sound Designer Scott Zechner.  Stage Manager Rebecca Mulvihill.  Apprentice Stage Manager Linzi Voth.

Performers (music) :  Michael Creber (Piano).  Chris Startup (Saxophone).

Performer (actors) : Patricia Cano (Marie-Louise Painchaud).  Cailin Stadnyk (Marile-Louise Painchaud -- select performances).

Addendum #1 : Musical highlights of the show :  Listening to Marie-Louise recite so many tales of marriages suffering loss, abandonment and bitterness, the words of the playwright from a 2015 interview are recalled pointedly (Highway at that time celebrating nearly 30 years with his life's love Raymond Lalonde, "the kindest man on the face of the earth") : 

"I always say I get treated better than the Queen. When I look at all these heterosexual men who have gone through these tortured marriages, with the hatred, the cruelty, the alimony payments, it's like a battle zone. I thank God every day that I'm not heterosexual. I thank God for that privilege."

To wit. In the song "Love I Know Is Here", Marie-Louise tells the tale of a couple who live 10 miles outside of Lovely and write charming letters to one another. Only at the end do we learn "How can you not be happy even if they are two men living together in sin?" Marie-Louise asks ironically, winking at the crowd. The song, likes its successor to end Act I, is wholly reminiscent of the Kurt Weill style.

And that would be the other Weill / Jacques Brel look-alike "The Window". It tells of Rosalind Johnson, originally from an innocent town called Kirkland who ventures to TO. There she meets sexy car mechanic Gus Cassidy. And despite a bloody violent end to their marriage, Rosalind spends the next 60 years still pining for "the man of 20-something standing in the window" where she first laid eyes on him moonlighting as a sexy, coy department store model.

One final song that deserves a shout-out. "When Last I Was in Buenos Aires, Argentina" kicks off Act II with the randiest, raunchiest number of the night. It's a saucy tango titillater that Marie-Louise acts out demonstratively, hornily. All about a lover's summer there with Ariel "of the dark eyes and the flaring nostrils" and his suppers of el spaghet with a Sriracha style sauce flown in from Paraguay. Needless to say the affair with Ariel was more than equal to his el spaghet once the jungle jiggery-pokery factored in.

Addendum #2 : Background on playwright Tomson Highway : Tomson Highway is the 11th of 12 Cree children from northern Manitoba. He was born in a tent on a snowbank, son of a caribou-hunting dad and a quilter mom. Highway unabashedly credits the Roman Catholic Guy Hill Indian Residential School in Clearwater, MB near The Pas with his becoming both tri-lingual and a piano-playing musician during his nine years there. Playwriting he took up when he turned 30-something, and cabaret-style shows are what he seems to favour most these days. The current show has also been produced in Cree, Kisageetin as well as in French, Zesty Gopher s'est fait ecraser par un frigo (that sings the song of a man & his wife & their fridge that's in transit to new digs).

Highway is outspoken on many fronts in ways that are often not politically correct. He does not, for example, subscribe to the liberal fuss over "appropriation of voice". In a September 30, 2013 interview with Maclean's magazine, he noted:

"I'm part of the first wave of native writers in this country and we had to be aware of political correctness; it was kind of forced upon us. For the next wave of native playwrights, they should be afforded the freedom to let their imaginations fly. And we all need to help them get there. If a black, Chinese lesbian ends up being cast as the chief of an Indian reserve, then that is the choice of the writer, director and producer and it's nobody else's business.

"I don't particularly want to work with people who are scared, for whatever reason. And people who think that way [about appropriation of voice] are scared, they're chickens! I feel most comfortable with people who are brave and courageous. Who are politically incorrect, for goodness sake. I love politically incorrect. I mean, it's essential for art."

On the subject of residential schools, Highway told Huffington Post's Joshua Ostroff in late 2015 : "All we hear is the negative stuff, nobody's interested in the positive, the joy in (Guy Hill Indian Residential) school. I learned your language, for God's sake. Have you learned my language? No, so who's the privileged one and who is underprivileged?

"You may have heard stories from 7,000 witnesses in the (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) process that were negative. But what you haven't heard are the 7,000 reports that were positive stories. There are many very successful people today that went to those schools and have brilliant careers and are very functional people, very happy people like myself. I have a thriving international career, and it wouldn't have happened without that school."

Highway cites two primary influences on his artistry : his remote northern upbringing with his family on the Barren Lands Indian Reservation and on the "cosmology" of mainstream native thought. "The most privileged boys in Rosedale and Forest Hill are lucky if they get 20 metres of lakefront for two weeks every summer. We had 50 lakes for two months year; we had entire islands to ourselves, just us. It is unbelievably beautiful up there and nobody sees it but us because it's inaccessible. The older I get, the more I realize what a spectacular childhood it really was. My father was the king of this enormous domain; we grew up as princes of the north. This country has royalty, too," he asserted to Ostroff in December.

As for his spiritual underpinnings, in his Maclean's 2013 interview he declared : "I like to convey joy. I want to convey that our primary responsibility on planet Earth is to be joyful : to laugh and to laugh and to laugh. I do not believe what I was taught as a child by Roman Catholic missionaries that the reason to exist is to suffer and repent and that the more of that we did, the more deserving we became of happiness in the afterlife. I mean, depressing, or what? I'm of the opposite opinion : the way the my native culture works is that it teaches that we're here to laugh, that heaven and hell are both here on Earth and it's our choice to make it one or the other."

In a similar vein in a December 10, 2015 interview with Martin Morrow of, Highway related the following : "Highway agrees that writing about [women] has been a lifelong obsession; but it has nothing to do with modern social movements and everything to do with his ancestral beliefs. 'Pantheism, which is the basis of native mythology and cosmology, sees God in nature. And the centre of native cosmology, certainly in Cree culture, is feminine. So I write obsessively about that. For Highway, the root of our problems is monotheism, the belief in one God, particularly since that God is perceived to be male. 'It's a patriarchal superstructure and it leads to fascism : 'If you don't believe in my God, I'll kill you, I'll destroy you...' Why did [God] come alone? Where was his wife? Where was his girlfriend? And the answer to that question is that she was here all the time. Our father art in heaven, but our mother is here on this planet. And if we don't recognize that, and that we need to preserve this planet, we're doomed.'"

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