Saturday 29 September 2018

Les Belles-soeurs retells 60's East Montreal tales of women's woes
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)

From the footlights :  CAPESGL. That's a homegrown acronym for life's seven deadly sins. Covetousness. Anger. Pride. Envy. Sloth. Greed. Lust. Each and every one of them is on display by the 15-woman cast in Ruby Slippers Theatre's 50th anniversary production of Quebec bad-boy Michael Tremblay's Les Belles-soeurs (tr. "the beautiful sisters"). 

The original was set in Tremblay's East Montreal : a cultural ghetto borne of the Catholic church, male patriarchal suppression, working class deprivations of all sorts. Quebec's women, particularly, were starting to "rage against the machine" with all its grimy, soul-grinding gears. As Tremblay puts it : "One woman complaining is pitiful. Five women saying they are unhappy with their lives at the same time is the beginning of a revolution."

Winning 1,000,000 Gold Star retail stamps throws Germaine Lauzon (France Perras) into a frenzy of joy that will bring out the worst in family & friends who come to "celebrate" her good fortune.
Photo credit : Tim Matheson

The set up : Germaine (France Perras) has just won a million Gold Star stamps that Quebec retailers used to give out in the 60's with each purchase. She's ecstatic. But they all have to be stuck in clutchbooks before she can trade them and fill up her house with the swack of stuff she slavers over from appliances to furniture to knick-knacks. So she invites a dozen friends and family to a party to load up the sticker books : that's when CAPESGL breaks out all over her kitchen.

Reason? Her friends' envy brings out all the bitterness, resentment and ill-will their ghetto lives have wrought. Soon they are stuffing their pockets with Germaine's precious stamps by the fistful. But no question their ill-will is designed by M. Tremblay to derive more from sardonic comedy than tragedy.

How the director sees her show :  "Incendiary" is a term Director Diane Brown uses -- and countless others have also applied -- to the script : inflammatory and provocative and a wee bit subversive. The women rail on. They screech and taunt one another as if bragging rights derive from who can come up with the best put-down of whom. Still they do so largely from smart-ass whim, only occasionally is anyone downright serious.

The schmancy wedding Yvette (Melissa Oei) put on for her daughter but didn't invite any of her fellow stamp-lickers to. Lisette (Sarah Rodgers) who is spitefully nouveau riche. Rose (Beatrice Zeilinger) spits out how she survives, barely, in a marriage with a drooling 365 sex maniac. 

Marie-Ange (Lucia Frangione) hisses how much more worthy of the stamp windfall she is than Germaine : "I never have any pleasure, someone always ruins it for me. You wouldn't catch me having luck like that -- fat chance! The ones with all the luck least deserve it." 

The puritanical but gossipy Rhealina (Patti Allan) who can't seem to forgive her pal of 35 years Angeline (Kerry Sandomirsky) when Angeline, no angel, reveals she steals away for the odd schnizzle and two hours of random giggly yak at a local pub once-a-week.

Stamp-envy and contempt are written all over the face of Marie-Ange (Lucia Frangione) as neighbour Des-Nieges (Eileen Barrett) looks on quizzically while Germaine (France Perras) tries vainly to get them to get a buzz off her windfall.
Photo credit : Tim Matheson
Brown calls the play "a powerful illustration of our envy economy" : a tale of "how status is gained and maintained within the tribe : everything is a competition, even who is most unhappy." Set during Quebec's so-called Quiet Revolution, the script is a male's cut at what sparked the candles of feminism and secular, anti-religious fervour in Canada's largest province back in the day. 

Production values and acting pinspots : Drew Facey's drab pedestrian kitchen with its giant (prison?) walls and stackable wood-frame tables is just the right launch-point for the Greek-chorus laments sung out by these wives and moms who are plain tuckered out : "Stupid rotten luck, stupid rotten luck, they eat like pigs, they wreck the house, then they leave. Suppertime comes, we all fight, but at night we watch t.v. I'm fed up with this stupid rotten life!" they chime together five times or more while performing housewifely calisthenics on the kitchen chairs that, like them, are all strung out downstage. Near the show's end their "Ode to Bingo!" chorus was simply stupendous : the "B-14" refrain shall live on giggling and tickling in my brain for some time to come.

But not just choruses for Tremblay in this didactic and hortatory expose of 60's joual Quebecois. Also a string of soliloquies that were each and all touching and cleverly spotlighted and coloured by John Webber's deft hand on the rheostat. Melissa Oei's peppery rhyme-off of each and every person's name at a recent party that went on for a minute or more got well-deserved cheers and claps.

In the end this is a script whose sum of its parts is better than the whole. The play lacks a plot with a dramatic arc of any real significance. But no question the bitchy interplay between the characters -- most notably between Germaine and her snotty daughter Linda (Pippa Mackie), but also among the neighbours -- offer up priceless takeaway moments. 

Also not to overlook the slo-mo chiaroscuro pantomime of all the women trying to wrestle away each other's purses at the end -- jammed as they all are with the Gold Star books each and every one of them has stolen -- this was clever choreography and skilled dramatic design for sure. 

Who gonna like : For a slice-of-life look at the oppressive blue collar social milieux faced in the 60's in faraway Quebec by its women -- limned with humour to masque all their pent-up anger -- Les Belles-sours is a show for lovers of character(s). 

This passel of women whose peccadilloes and grievances and profanities are magnified and distorted as if through a prism by Michael Tremblay indeed make precisely the statement he intended 50 years back. Ruby Slippers pulls off what Tremblay wanted with panache and delight and relevance given such reactionary times as these the world is having to put up with.

Particulars :  Produced by Ruby Slippers Theatre, Diane Brown, Artistic Director. On at Richmond's Gateway Theatre in Minoru Park next to RGH. Runs until October 6, 2018. Tickets & schedule information by phoning Gateway at 604.270.1812 or on-line @ Show-time 135 minutes, one intermission.

Production teamDirector Diane Brown.  Set Designer Drew Facey.  Costume Designer Ellen Gu.  Sound Designer Mishelle Cuttler.  Lighting Designer John Webber.  Movement Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg. Assistant Director Mikayla Wust. Technical Director Jeff Harrison. Stage Manager Lois Dawson. Assistant Stage Manager Liz King. 

Performers :  Patti Allan (Rheauna Bibeau). Daria Banu (Ginette Menard). Eileen Barrett (Des-Nieges Verrette).  Lucia Frangione (Marie-Ange Brouillette).  Emilie Leclerc (Pierette Guerin).  Pippa Mackie (Linda Lauzon).  Melissa Oei (Yvette Longpre).  France Perras (Germaine Lauzon).  Sarah May Redmonbd (Therese Dubuc).  Sarah Rodgers (Lisette De Courval).  Kerry Sandomirsky (Angeline Sauve).  Ariel Slack (Olvine Dubuc). Agnes Tong (Lise Paquette). Tallulah Winkelman (Gabrielle Jodoin).  Beatrice Zeilinger (Rose Ouimet). 


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