Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Theatre Review: La Maculée / sTain, March 2011

Text © Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet

La Maculée / sTain
Written by Madeleine Blais-Dahlem
Directed by Marie-Eve Gagnon
La Troupe du Jour
The Refinery (Saskatoon)

Outside of Canada, it is probably not widely known that Quebec is not the only province with a large Francophone population. Actually, between the Métis, gold rush migrants and homesteaders, Saskatchewan has many residents who have families that originated in Quebec and settled on the prairies.

This fact is just a beginning point in the thematically complex and compelling play La Maculée / sTain, staged by La Troupe du Jour, which focuses on a Montreal native become Saskatchewan resident, Françoise, who moves to the province when she marries Bernard, a resident of the Battlefords area. What starts as a deep love that sired five (unseen) children, twists into a bitter resentment, providing the frame for the storyline. But I jump ahead.

Set in the in 1920s, the play is mostly in French, with subtitles projected above the stage. The story jumps back and forth from the time the couple met toward the denouement, explaining how and why the situation has deteriorated. Using a very simple and yet eloquent stage (designed by David Granger), every element is used at one point or another.

[writer Madeleine Blais-Dahlem]
Devising a story that started out with a memory from her mother’s time, Saskatchewan writer Madeleine Blais-Dahlem was propelled to craft this drama when she heard about a female suicide bomber, and thought spontaneously: “Religion is still killing women.” These two points wove together in her consciousness to generate this play, which does not denounce religion as evil, but treats it as something that can be used for that purpose. As Bernard transforms into a Pentecostal snake-oil salesman searching for big bucks through tent revivals, while his innocent and deeply Catholic wife, Françoise, struggles with the toll it takes on her beliefs. As a result, Françoise eventually checks herself into the local mental clinic on a more-or-less regular basis to get away from the situation; Bernard wants to lock her away forever.

There are six characters in the play, each embodying the symbols of a patriarchal (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) and matriarchal (Maiden, Mother, Crone) belief system. I’ll go in that order:

The Father figure is Dr. Maurice Johnson, the head psychiatrist of the mental hospital, played with just the right amount of sanctimonious blindness and condescension by veteran stage actor Ian C. Nelson. He knows that Françoise is not crazy, but rather than trying to root out why she keeps checking herself into the hospital, is more interested in proving himself right in relation to contemporary theory. Father does not know what’s best for Françoise, and since she is “merely a woman” in his eyes, he listens to her, but does not necessarily hear, much like one might say the “Man above” does with prayers.

Bernard, strongly portrayed by Gilles Poulin-Denis, is mentored by another religious faker who trains and uses Bernard to front his operation of religious fervor. Poulin-Denis convincingly plays his character as he is slowly transformed from a struggling farmer into a high-powered and abusive man who will let nothing stand in his way, be it his loving wife or using his children to further his aim. Through his retraining from a shy French-speaking Catholic into the hellfire English-tongued Pentecostal, he grows up to be someone feared rather than loved. Poulin-Denis walks the line between the two sides of Bernard, as he travels back and forth between before and after his “conversion.”

As for the Holy Spirit, New Brunswick native Bruce McKay is electrifying as the Real Preacher Man (as his character is listed), lighting up the stage from the moment he enters Françoise and Bernard’s lives as a door-to-door salesman, selling bottled religious remedies. He convinces the couple that his “medicine” (actually poured straight from a liquor bottle) is a miracle elixir. Through the transaction, he sees something in Bernard that convinces him to take him under his tutelage by teaching him English, and fostering enough confidence to take on the role of leading revival groups. McKay commands the stage as soon as the door opens for him, making him quite convincing as this evil, conniving, shady character.

Françoise is the poor Maiden, taken advantage of by the patriarchy in a system and time period where she has few rights. Torn between her religious beliefs, and having been taught that she is supposed to be “obedient” to her husband who is becoming someone else before her eyes, she watches as her children are exploited under Bernard’s tent as props to lure people in; they are also used as a weapon as Bernard turns them against their mother. Marie-Claire Marcotte using a full range of emotions from timidity to fear to absolute rage in a fit of futility, portrays Françoise as a person torn both emotionally and physically by everything she loves. It is a powerful role in which Marcotte shines.

The Mother image is personified in the hospital’s nurse, Louise, played by Alicia Johnston. Like Françoise, Louise is an intelligent woman who is forced to operate under the direction of a man, Dr. Johnson, who is less empathic than she is. She understands Françoise’s plight better than perhaps anyone in the play, including Françoise, but is powerless to do much about it. Instead, she takes Françoise under her wing and gives her what none of the males who control her life can: compassion. Johnston’s role is warm and nurturing for the audience as well, as a lonely symbol of what is right. Nurses who know better are too often stuck being subservient to doctors and systems who do not have the time or inclination to do the deepest caring work, even today.

The last character is Françoise’s mysterious neighbor, a First Nation’s woman who is seen fleetingly. As the embodiment of the wise Crone, she is someone who occasionally takes care of Françoise in times of need, drawing on tribal knowledge, without dialogue, and with no expectation of reciprocation. She is such an enigmatic individual, covered over from head to toe, that she is not even listed in the program (my guess is she is played by McKay, who has little to do in the second act).

Even the very title of the play is more than it seems. For example, there is no English word for Maculée, loosely translated as the opposite of “Immaculate,” as in the Immaculate Conception (Mother Mary is a significant symbolic presence in this story in the form of a statuette). The term “Stain” may be one way to interpret the term, but it is spelled in lower case here, with the “T” capitalized to represent the Cross.

[Director Marie-Eve Gagnon]
While being drenched in symbolism, the play is actually quite accessible, though emotionally wrought. Despite the tendency for these kinds of stories have all the men function as oppressors and all the women as the oppressed, it’s a moral tale for all about how a sexual caste system is unhealthy both for the exploited, through social constructions of victimization, and for the persecutor, whose potentials are distorted under the rigors of a culture of masculinist training.

As an amusing sidenote, I found it mildly ironic that the production was put on in the Refinery, which used to be a church rectory.

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