by Lynn on September 7, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Festival Theatre, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont. Playing until Oct. 28, 2023.

Lucy Peacock as Germaine Lauzon. Stratford Festival 2023. Photo by David Hou.

Written by Michel Tremblay

Translated by John Van Burek and Bill Glassco

Directed by Esther Jun

Set by Joanna Yu

Costumes by Michelle Bohn

Lighting by Louise Guinand

Composer and sound designer, Maddie Bautista

Cast: Bola Aiyeola

Akosua Amo-Adem

Joelle 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

Michel Tremblay’s wild ride of a play that still has resonance today with many shining performances.

The Story. Germaine Lauzon is a working-class Montreal housewife who has just won a million Gold Star stamps from a local grocery store. In order to trade those stamps for goods/furniture/appliances, she has to paste the stamps in booklets. She decides to have a stamp pasting party and invites her sister Rose, her daughter Linda and her friends in the apartment building. There will be 15 women in all (including Germaine).

Germaine gleefully tells those in attendance what she will buy with the stamps—she will redecorate the whole apartment. The women react to this news seething with anger and jealousy in varying degrees. Over the evening they individually vent about their disappointment in life and then they get even with Germaine.

In typical Michel Tremblay fashion, he does not judge his beloved characters. The play is bitter-sweet and hilarious.

The Production. Playwright Michel Tremblay wrote and set Les Belles-Soeurs in Montreal in 1965, during ‘the Quiet Revolution’, which changed the course of Quebec and was anything but quiet. The translation by John Van Burek and Bill Glassco captured the language (joual) and tone of the times and that place. From the distance of 1965 to 2023 to some the play might seem dated. How? It’s about 1965 and informed that time. We see echoes of it in our world. That’s the beauty of theatre, to transcend time. And how many of us can name anybody as a neighbour, let alone 14 people? Different times but not dated.  

Michel Tremblay grew up in a crowded house of women—five women raised him. So, when he began writing he knew instinctively how to write for and about women. He wrote about the strong hold of the Catholic Church on family life at the time; the dominance of men over the women in the home; the demand for sex as a marital right; the grinding effect of poverty on the working class; the bitterness of disappointment. And through it all he found humour that made one laugh out loud.

Joanne Yu’s set of Germaine Lauzon’s apartment is homey, perhaps a bit shabby and well worn. We get a sense of the apartment building where Germaine lives with her family, by the line of laundry drying strung along the top of the stage. As per a line in the play, there is no underwear—a lovely touch.

Michelle Bohn’s costumes are terrific. They speak volumes about the characters and their attitudes. Initially Germaine Lauzon, played by a lively Lucy Peacock, appears a bit hunched, in a house coat and fuzzy slippers. She shuffles her feet as she prepares the house for her guests. Then Germaine changes into a dress with a belted waist and a sash that announces she is a winner and the body language changes. As played by Lucy Peacock she is confident, buoyant and effervescent. She is not aware of the jealousy and anger of her guests towards her good fortune.

Marie-Ange Brouillette (Shannon Taylor) is a bitter, disappointed woman who appears in a non-descript dress, suggesting she put little effort into her appearance. That says so much about her. Others are in black, prim, proper, almost buttoned up. Pierrette Guerin (Allison Edwards-Crewe) is Germain’s estranged sister. She works in a club and so her reputation is not pristine according to many of the women. She is dressed in pants in red with a vibrant coloured coat and top. She knows what people think of her. She will stare them down. The clothes say everything.

Olivine Dubuc (Diana Leblanc) is a woman of a certain age, wears a beret and nondescript clothes, and is in a wheelchair pushed (and occasionally thumped) by her daughter-in-law Thérėse Dubuc (Irene Poole). Olivine is generally silent, still and seemingly comatose. When she is ‘awake’ she looks confused, annoyed and perhaps obstreperous. She is also hilarious and you cannot take your eyes off her.  Director Esther Jun keeps moving the wheelchair from upstage in full view to other parts of the stage, obstructed by other characters. In one scene Olivine slowly slides out of her chair onto the floor and rolls downs a bit downstage and over a step. Part of the movement is obstructed and a surprise when we finally see it. It’s hilarious, but would have been more shocking and funny had we seen the whole slide and roll clearly of Diana Leblanc as Olivine. Michel Tremblay wrote that part to be ‘hiding’ in plain sight; why try to hide her?

With 15 characters to maneuver director Esther Jun has created a production that always seems to be moving. It’s not forced. And again Tremblay wrote this cohesive play so that every character had a story and a scene to spotlight it. In true illuminating style, lighting designer, Louise Guinand gives each woman her own spotlight in which to shine. Each story is distinct, revelatory and often stunning. There are so many standouts. The aforementioned Lucy Peacock as Germaine Lauzon. She is curt to her daughter Linda (Ijeoma Emesowum) who is none too happy about being corralled into this stamp pasting party. Linda is petulant and wants to go out with her boyfriend. A fine performance by Ijeoma Emesowum.

As Pierrette Guerin, the outcast, Allison Edwards-Crewe is brassy, tough and heartbreaking as she navigates a world controlled by men. Angéline Sauvé, as played by Akosua Amo-Adem, prim, proper, black-clad and has a terrible secret she is trying to hide. We sense her terror when Pierrette Guerin appears. Akosua Amo-Adem as Angéline Sauvé, is so self-contained and compelling.  As Rose Ouimet (Germain Lauzon’s sister), Seana McKenna appears commanding, in control and forthright. It’s a different story when she tells of her sexually demanding husband. It’s as if Rose’s strength dissolves as Seana McKenna reveals the tight, claustrophobic world in which Rose lives. Each woman has secrets and disappointments—they all know luck is not on their side—but Rose is a person apart and McKenna’s searing performance makes one grip the armrest. Shannon Taylor is a fine actor. As Marie-Ange Brouillette she is an angry, jealous woman at Germaine’s good fortune and is the first to take advantage of the situation (nicely illuminated in Esther Jun’s direction). But as Marie-Ange Shannon Taylor does not hold back and her rage comes out in a torrent. A more tempered release of that rage would have held more surprise longer for the audience.

Comment.  In Les Belles-Soeurs Michel Tremblay has created a specific world of these women in which he makes a universal statement. In Esther Jun’s Stratford production many of the actors illuminate that specific world in which they are cohesively joined. Some, however, give the sense they don’t know that world and seem to be in a different play. It’s as if the effort to be universal was more important than first creating the specificity. It works from the specific to the universal, not the other way around. Still, I was grateful for those shining performances and to hear Michel Tremblay’s towering play again.   

The Stratford Festival presents:

Plays until Oct. 28, 2023.

Running time: 2 hours, 22 minutes (1 intermission)

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