Review: ELLE

by Lynn on January 20, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Theatre Passe Muraille, Mainspace, Toronto, Ont.

Adapted by Severn Thompson
From the novel by Douglas Glover
Directed by Christine Brubaker
Designed by Jennifer Goodman
Sound and original music by Lyon Smith
Movement by Viv Moore
Cast: Jonathan Fisher
Severn Thompson

A vivid, vibrant production of a story told eloquently and performed beautifully by Severn Thompson

The Story. Elle is based on the life of Marguerite de Roberval. She is knows as Elle in the play and in Douglas Glover’s book of the same name. She was a headstrong woman who refused to live within the confines of proper society in France in the 1500s. She had affairs with many men. Marriage was not for her. She was wilful, confident, daring and sexually charged. She was not the proper kind of woman who brought honour to her family. As a result in 1542 her father arranged for her to sail to Canada with her uncle who was going with Jacques Cartier to colonize the country. When someone is trouble, teach them a lesson and ship them off to the wilds of Canada.

Her uncle, Jean Francois de Roberval, was a nasty piece of work in his own right. Because Elle had a lover on board the ship and became pregnant by him, her uncle marooned her on the Isle of Demons, off the coast of Labrador, Inuit and is believed to be mythical. She was also marooned with her lover and her nurse. With little to eat, harsh weather and an inhospitable environment, Elle survived through determination, pluck and resourcefulness in embracing her surroundings.

The Production. The playing area in Jennifer Goodman’s production design is a large T shape, with the audience on three sides of the section that juts into it. A large swath of dark gold material is used to suggest a shelter; a body covering, a huge bear that overpowers Elle and who in turn overpowers it.

While the story is based in fact, the production and the adaptation span many times—Elle is really a woman of today as well as then. There are many references to Aboriginal folklore. The bear that factors heavily in the story is real, imagined, and mythical.

In one of many vivid images in director Christine Brubaker’s beautiful production, the swath of material is attached to a hook and lifted up off the stage forming an elegant cone shape. It is then dropped on Elle (Severn Thomson) suggesting the bear is attacking her.

She manages to slit the bear open and gut it. She wraps herself in the material now suggesting the skin of the freshly dead bear and says that she has never felt warmer. It is said with such bliss by Thompson that you can’t help but feel the enveloping warmth yourself.

Jonathan Fisher plays Itslk a native man who saves Elle, teaches her how to hunt and appreciate the land. Itslk is gentle, curious and respectful of this strong woman. Severn Thompson prowls the stage as an explorer would a new land. The movement by Viv Moore illuminates the physical difficulty Elle endures. The movement is both graceful and spirited.

Thompson portrays a woman who is of her time and way ahead of it. She is historical but so contemporary. Elle is fearless, forward thinking and almost never defeated. It’s a fine, compelling performance.

Comment. In his program note, Andy McKim, Artistic Director of Theatre Passe Muraille, references author Douglas Glover (who wrote the book on which the play is based): “It was remarkable that she (Elle) survived by herself when the large expedition brought to colonize Canada by (her uncle) and Jacques Cartier couldn’t succeed. (Perhaps) her motives were somehow purer, that she was closer in her attitudes to what we might call the forces of life, and this allowed her also to be more open to native culture.” Or it could just simply be that Marguerite de Roberval (Elle) was one resourceful woman who knew how to suck it up, use what was available to her and embrace and respect her surroundings and survive.

Severn Thompson has adapted Douglas Glover’s book so that it lives on the stage. The language is eloquent and poetic. At one point Elle refers to “endless misty vistas.” I certainly don’t mind spending time in a theatre if I can listen to poetic lines like that, delivered with as much passion and life as Severn Thompson imbues in Elle.

A Theatre Passe Muraille Production

Opened: Jan.19, 2016.
Closes: Jan. 31, 2016.
Cast: 2; 1 man, 1 woman.
Running Time: 90 minutes.

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