'Les Belles-Soeurs' by Michel Tremblay. Translated by John Van Burek and Bill Glassco
Now onstage at Stratford Festival's Festival Theatre until October 28
Credit: David Hou. Pictured from left: Irene Poole, Shannon Taylor, Lucy Peacock, Jennifer Villaverde, Seana McKenna and Jane Luk.
Something important is missing from this ‘Les Belles-Soeurs’
Set in 1965 during the Quiet Revolution in an east-end Montréal apartment tenement, working-class housewife Germaine Lauzon (Lucy Peacock) wins a million Gold Star trading stamps from a local grocery store. She is now faced with pasting all these stamps into the booklets. To tackle this task, Germaine organizes a stamp-pasting party and invites her relatives and friends who live nearby in other apartments to come and help. She first corners her daughter, Linda (Ijeoma Emesowum), who’s reluctant as she has other plans. However, Germaine’s nagging finally strong-arms Linda to remain at home and help.
Germaine then invites her sister Rose (Seana McKenna), Gabrielle (Jane Luk) and other women to stop by. Ultimately, Germaine’s talk about refurnishing her dreary-looking apartment with an entirely new makeover makes the others feel jealous and resentful of her fortune. The women secretly begin to steal some of the booklets under the guise that Germaine won’t know since there are over one million stamps.
What might seem like an ideal opportunity for these women as Germaine’s friends to gather and help becomes something more.
Instead, this initially innocuous hen party morphs into a catty bitching session where the women gossip, sometimes crudely, about events and people they know. For example, the ladies discuss the patriarchal society of French Québec in the mid-'60s, where men had their places as the head of the house, and women had to follow suit.
A subplot involves Germaine’s ostracized younger sister Pierrette (Allison Edwards-Crewe) and what she does at a local nightclub. The separation of church from private lives during the Quiet Revolution also becomes fodder during the conversation as piously religious Gabrielle (Jane Luk) reveals in her actions. Gabrielle is godmother to Germaine’s Linda, and this role in the Catholic faith was considered sacrosanct. The behaviour and dress of Linda’s friends, Lise (Marissa Orjalo) and Lisette (Jennifer Villaverde), indicated that younger women did not want to follow what was expected.
French Canadian playwright Michel Tremblay knows these women. He grew up in this world and holds respect and dignity for them. He remembers what these women said to each other and how it was said. They are honest and beautiful women even at their meanest. Amid the bickering, their distinct voices and sounds remain within Tremblay’s being.
And has this diverse fifteen-member ladies' ensemble under Esther Jun’s direction created that distinct vocal sound?
Unfortunately, that doesn’t ring consistently true for me on this opening night.
That doesn’t mean, however, not to see this production because there are some highlights worth noting.
Joanna Yu’s set design is terrific. She captures Germaine Lauzon’s cramped home and the proximity of the ‘60s east-end Montréal’s tenement buildings, complete with a clothesline hanging above the Festival stage. The drab décor of the Lauzon apartment is in dire need of a paint job. That paint job has already started with part of the upstage draped in a drop sheet, indicating a room is being prepped for the job.
Maddie Bautista’s pre-show and interval musical soundscape perfectly captures the essence of Québec in the ‘60s. Thankfully, the music never overpowered but allowed me to listen carefully and see if I could recognize the singer or perhaps the song (benefits of studying the French language at secondary and post-secondary level and having taught it in schools).
In a Programme Note, Katie Hewitt writes that Costume Designer Michelle Bohn captures the power dynamics and petty jealousies of the women in the clothing choices. How true. Bohn’s colourful costumes are rich, bold and ‘ultra-chic’ pastels. The ‘60s style has been beautifully captured if you are fashion-conscious.
Esther Jun has instinctively made some good choices in casting top-notch artists from the Festival who remain diligently focused and committed to the ensemble work. There are some promising performers I hope to see on stage in future. This acting ensemble duly brings these characters to life and “deserve to be celebrated even if they themselves fail to perceive their own beauty,” as Jun writes in her Programme Note.
Once again, let’s not forget these women are real people from Tremblay’s life. He finds them beautiful and celebrates their uniqueness. They are survivors of what life has thrown at them before 1965. They will continue to survive in the present and the future, but not without a lot of belly aching and whining.
The raucous hurling of comical quips and stinging barbs is delivered with reckless vivacity. They are sometimes crude, but this is what these characters do to fight back and defend themselves. That’s all they know.
Lucy Peacock is a commanding Germaine Lauzon. Her overbearing and, at times, selfish nature gives valid reasons why the others begin stealing stamp booklets during the party. Why should Germaine be the only one with good fortune and not the rest? Germaine will survive this changing time in 1965 Québec society just like the others gathered at the stamp party. Their way of coping amid all this change in the Québec society they know is through personal attacks against each other.
The accusations are undoubtedly mean at times, that’s true, but Tremblay’s characters have learned to live and deal with them.
As Germaine’s fun-loving but spoiled brat of a daughter, Ijeoma Emesowum’s Linda will probably end up just like her mother. Seana McKenna’s Rose Ouimet (Germaine’s sister) satisfyingly counterbalances and pokes great fun at Peacock’s constant whining and complaining. Shannon Taylor’s frumpy house coat-dressed Marie-Ange (neighbour to Germaine) becomes that proverbial in-your-face French-Canadian woman who does not suffer fools gladly (or put up with no ‘you know what’ from anyone).
What a treat to watch Diana Leblanc’s performance as the wheelchair-bound elderly Olivine Dubuc. Leblanc remains silent for most of the production, but periodic glances at her during the play show she is committed totally in the moment and listens intently. There are moments when Leblanc maneuvers the wheelchair at a perfectly timed moment for comedy. Her participation in the Bingo game is a riot.
As Thérèse Dubuc, Irene Poole’s palpable frustration is sometimes harsh towards Olivine, her mother-in-law. One moment drew a gasp of shock. But let’s not forget these women from Tremblay’s life are pained individuals, like Thérèse, who struggle and will survive. Marissa Orjalo’s conversation as Lise with Allison Edwards-Crewe’s Pierrette (Germaine’s ostracized sister) introduces a social justice topic that still touches sore spots and nerves. Both Orjalo and Edwards-Crewe handle this moment openly yet delicately.
Yet something's missing from this production.
It’s that distinct Québecois joual sound.
Seana McKenna captures its musicality, but it’s not present in the other performers. There’s a good deal of shouting and raised voices, but there’s nothing distinct in the sound of the spoken language. I understand dropping the use of an accent if it’s not going to work; however, in this case, ‘Les Belles-Soeurs’ is a play of communication. It was the way these women spoke to each other that the playwright remembers. Québec society in 1965 tried to discover its uniqueness through art, culture, and daily living.
The distinct sound of the Québecois joual should emanate from the words. It’s a shame that it’s missing in this production.
Running time: approximately two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.
‘Les Belles-Soeurs’ runs until October 28 in the Festival Theatre at the Stratford Festival on Queen Street. For tickets, visit stratfordfestival.ca or call 1-800-567-1600.
LES BELLES-SOEURS by Michel Tremblay.
Translated by John Van Burek and Bill Glassco
Directed by Esther Jun
Set Designer: Joanna Yu
Costume Designer: Michelle Bohn
Lighting Designer: Louise Guinand
Composer and Sound Designer: Maddie Bautista
Performers: Bola Aiyeola, Akosua Amo-Adem, Joella Crichton, Allison Edwards-Crewe, Ijeoma Emesowum, Diana Leblanc, Jane Luk, Seana McKenna, Marissa Orjalo, Lucy Peacock, Irene Poole, Jamillah Ross, Tara Sky, Shannon Taylor, Jennifer Villaverde