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'Wildwoman' by Kat Sandler

Now onstage at Soulpepper Theatre

Now onstage at Soulpepper Theatre

Dave Rabjohn

A blistering new work by Kat Sandler initiates Soulpepper Theatre’s “Her Words Festival” – a program meant to highlight the work of women creators. ‘Wildwoman’ begins this program with force. An imposing set, five brilliant performances and brisk direction staggers the audience.

As mentioned in Ms. Sandler’s notes “. . . this is a true story. Mostly.” In 16th-century France, Henry II made his way to the throne amidst some shady circumstances. He marries the mercurial Catherine de Medici, and, not without some strange complexity, they finally have the heirs he demands. The “complexity” comes from various sources, including Henry’s interest in exotic creatures, a much older mistress, and a scheming servant coyly played by Gabriella Sundar Singh.

The brilliance of the performances is in each character’s chameleon-like changes throughout the play. It was a demanding challenge creatively met. Seeds of their future personas are delicately planted and then are ferociously activated into the second act.

Tony Ofori displays a wide range of skills as the fourteen-year-old Henry cavorts with an equally young Catherine (Rose Napoli.) It is like a kindergarten class on steroids. The farcical style belies the serious issues of sexuality, politics, and alleged murder these youngsters are thrown into. Power mutates Henry into an angry, suspicious misogynist - murderous and hateful.

In a fierce and resolute performance, Catherine also transforms from the doey-eyed not-entirely-naïve girl into a sinister, raging victim bent on revenge.

A skillful performance comes from Rosemary Dunsmore as the older mistress, Didi. Confidence soon leaks as events push her to the sidelines, and she becomes confused in her new subservient role. Ms. Singh’s Kitty is artful and ambitious. But marriage and motherhood soften her robust persona as she becomes a source of reason amid evil.

The strange hairy ‘beast’ is played by Dan Mousseau. A real man with a very rare condition is a caged oddity and a play toy for the young king. The inarticulate Pete grows curious and becomes a worthy husband and an aspiring academic.

Set design by Nick Blais is a dramatic punch to the senses. Massive antlers envelop the stage as they rise, almost two stories seething masculinity. The hunting motif is turned upside down as Catherine becomes the more accomplished hunter while she overtakes her evil husband. The court is austere and stylish, with dark wood and deep golden curtains—a bust of the severe former king peers down at the proceedings.

Ms. Sandler’s writing ranges from high farce to compelling tragedy. Highlights include Henry’s retort when asked to mould a country – ‘I don’t want a mouldy country.’ Kitty’s brilliant, tragic speech about the Spanish jail is rich and heartbreaking.

As mentioned, the story is mostly true, giving it even more vitality. The final historical suggestion is that Catherine ignites the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, resulting in the murder of thousands of protestants.

The title not only suggests Catherine’s bizarre relationship with Pete – but it also poses questions - does her eventual wildness come from within or without? What triggers ambition and cruelty? Ms. Sandler’s play is a testimony to the implications of these questions, especially in a female context.

‘Wildwoman’ by Kat Sandler
Performers: Rosemary Dunsmore, Rose Napoli, Gabriella Sundar Singh, Dan Mousseau, Toni Ofori
Direction: Kat Sandler
Lighting: Kimberly Purtell
Set design: Nick Blais
Costume design: Michelle Tracey

Performances run through October 29, 2023.

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