Broadcast text reviews of: HERETIC and BOSTON MARRIAGE

by Lynn on April 10, 2015

in The Passionate Playgoer

The following reviews were broadcast on CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 fm, Friday, April 10, 2015, Heretic at the Lemon Tree Studio, 58 Stewart Street until April 12, 2015 and Boston Marriage at the Campbell House Museum, Queen and University until April 26, 2015.

The host was Phil Taylor

Good Friday morning, it’s theatre fix time with Lynn Slotkin, our theatre critic and passionate playgoer. What’s up this week?

I have two shows, both about strong women. The first is Heretic by Sarah Thorpe presented by Soup Can Productions. It’s a bold re-telling of the story of Joan of Arc as a teenager inspired to do great things.

And the second play is Boston Marriage by American bad boy playwright, David Mamet. This is his first play solely about women. He’s been criticized for not being able to write credible women if they are in his plays. Boston Marriage puts that criticism to rest.

Ok let’s start with Joan of Arc. How does Heretic handle that huge story?

Creator/performer Sarah Thorpe doesn’t do things in a small way. With Heretic she wanted to set herself a new challenge as a performing artist: to create a piece of theatre about Joan of Arc to peel “away the saintly glow that surrounds Joan’s persona to expose the vulnerable teenage girl underneath.”

Using historical references, but contemporary language and expressions, Thorpe gives us the basics of Joan’s life plus insights into her determination and fears. She was a farm-girl who lived with her father and mother. Her father was a bully and browbeat her for her independent nature and her convictions. She was illiterate but loved going to Church, she found solace there and immersing herself in the world of God.

She always lived in a time of war. The Hundred Years War had been raging. England held sway over France resulting in the demoralized attitude of Joan’s people. She began hearing voices from God when she was thirteen. God told her to lead the French army against the English and to place the Dauphin on the throne as King of France. Her voices made her brave and confident.

Her confidence won over many soldiers and French leaders including the Dauphin, that perhaps she was not a crack-pot but a sign from God that the French people could triumph.

And we know what happened…

We do. The French repelled the English and Joan put the Dauphin on the throne. And as we know the powers that be could not contend with an illiterate peasant girl who wore men’s clothing and led them to victory. So they condemned her as a heretic and burned her at the stake. She was nineteen.

So while we see the historical information on Joan of Arc, we also see the teenager through the production—shy, independent, innocent of the enormity of the task, but full of belief.

Does the production do justice to such a big story?

I think it does it beautifully. Scenographer, Claire Hill does wonders with a tight design budget and a small space. She has created the world of France for Joan.

The walls of the stage are covered in sepia coloured photos of old-fashioned windmills, people and places, giving a sense of ‘long ago.’ On the sides are plush burgundy curtains suggesting the richness of the French court. Small flickering candles are placed on ledges in the curtains. A French flag hangs down in a door-well upstage. The production opens with Joan in silhouette in front of the French flag. She is holding a shield in one hand and her other arm is up in a dramatic pose. She wears pants, a simple top and boots.

When she comes into the light she speaks with authority as if addressing her troops before battle. This is the Joan with whom we are familiar. That scene is almost making fun of itself.

Is it really making fun of itself?

No. Joan soon puts down the shield and addresses us as a young teen we haven’t see before. Even as this young woman telling us of her life, Sarah Thorpe’s playing of Joan is compelling. Her Joan understands her world—the war, her angry father, the stunned surprise when God chooses her to lead the French army and her reticence at first but then gives over to serving her God.

This is an agile performance that shifts from innocence to wisdom to uncertainty. Thorpe also plays many other characters including the Dauphine, his mistress, a commentator on the war presented almost like an announcer at a hockey game, her father, a cocky soldier in sunglasses and an interrogating priest.

Thorpe is ably guided by director Matt Bernard who has a delicate but sure hand. The scene in which Joan is being beaten by her rather is particularly vivid. Thorpe holds up a jacket (it’s Joan’s) and the father addresses it as if berating Joan.

He whacks at it. Joan answers back and is hit again. Simple and effective. There is a subtle sound effect of crackling fire when Joan is at the stake. And do I actually smell smoke during that scene? Vivid. The production is full of images that create this world. There is a misstep though.

How so?

The scene with the commentator reporting on one of the battles as if it’s a frenzied game on radio or television, is a mistake. It might be funny but it diminishes the importance of what Joan is doing and the rest of the play certainly supports that seriousness. Thorpe is compelling in the role; extraneous humour is not needed.

This gritty, thoughtful, well done production is one of the many reasons I love indie theatre, and certainly the work of the feisty Soup Can Theatre Company adds to that feeling. Heretic is well worth a visit during this very short run.

And Boston Marriage. This is a kind of code phrase as we learned last week, when you interviewed Kelli Fox, the director.

Yes. “Boston marriage” as a term is said to have been in use in New England in the decades spanning the late 19th and early 20th centuries to describe two women living together, independent of financial support from a man. It might be a code for lesbian relationship or not. It’s vague.

What’s it about?

Two women, Anna and Claire had lived in such a relationship. They had been separated but reunited. When Claire returns to Anna we learn that Anna has made the acquaintance of a man, a protector who has given her an emerald necklace, settled her debts and set her up for a life of luxury. Claire tells Anna that she is in love with a young woman and wants to have an assignation at Anna’s house. Anna agrees but wants to watch the ‘transaction.’

This being David Mamet we learn that Anna, Claire, the necklace and Claire’s young friend are all connected. Plans are put into place. Quick thinking has to go into overdrive.

While this is different from other Mamet plays, it’s really not.

How is it different and how is it not?

It’s different because it’s about women! Mamet rarely writes about them and is accused of not being able to write them well. The language here is very stylized as if in Victorian times. The language is very literate, florid, and hilarious with starling anachronisms and the occasional swear word, but not many.

But then it is a typical Mamet play because it’s full of trickery, characters who want to get the better of others, with schemes and shady dealings.

When you interviewed director Kelli Fox last week you said that when you saw Boston Marriage in London years ago, you actually thought that Mamet was writing about men and not women. Do you believe that with this production of Boston Marriage?

I do not and I credit this fine cast and Kelli Fox’s direction with that. I believe these are smart, literate women who love scheming and games playing. Mamet’s men love games playing, but they don’t have the style or class of these women.

Catherine McNally plays Anna. Deborah Drakeford plays Claire. They taunt, egg on, and play off each other. Anna is perhaps the more subdued of the two. As Anna, McNally is all subtle and coy. As Claire, Drakeford is fiery, excitable, and manipulative in her own way.

There is a young maid named Catherine played by Charlotte Dennis who is a dream. The two women ignore her or are impatient and rude. Charlotte Dennis as Catherine is direct, forthright, and wonderfully understated in her whole performance, which of course makes her riveting.

Kelli Fox has directed this with tremendous style. This is a spare, unfussy direction. These women show us a whole different world in this unlikely of Mamet plays.

And for Kelli Fox and her stunning cast to get me to change my mind about the play—that it’s about women who are schemers, is a great feat.

It’s at the always charming Campbell House Museum. Terrific production.

Thanks Lynn. That’s Lynn Slotkin our theatre critic and passionate playgoer. You can read Lynn’s blog at twitter @slotkinletter.

Heretic plays at the Lemon Tree Studio at 58 Stewart Street until April 12.

Boston Marriage plays at the Campbell House Museum at the corner of Queen and University until April 26.

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