by Lynn on October 26, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, produced by Soulpeper Theatre Company, Toronto, Ont. Plays to Oct. 29, 2023.

Written and directed by Kat Sandler

Set by Nick Blais

Costumes by Michelle Tracey

Lighting by Kimberly Purtell

Sound and composition by Maddie Bautista

Cast: Rosemary Dunsmore

Dan Mousseau

Rose Napoli

Toni Ofori

Gabriella Sundar Singh

A provocative play about women in a man’s world, power and the origins of the Beauty and the Beast story.

The Story. It’s 1533, in France. Two teenagers—Henry and Catherine both about 14 years old–are about to be married. It’s an arranged marriage. Henry is Henry II of France, and Catherine is Catherine de Medici of Italy. She brings the ‘baggage’ of her powerful family with her; something about poisoning their enemies. Henry is immature but knows that he needs an heir. Catherine’s job is to provide it.

At first, she is dutiful. Sex is frequent to produce an heir. Nothing results. Henry is frustrated. Catherine is too but also unsettled. Henry has a mistress named Didi who is much older than he is, and he tends to confide in her rather than Catherine. Catherine confides in Kitty, a servant. Into this group comes Pete. He was born with a condition that makes him profoundly hairy over his entire body. Henry keeps him in a cage as a pet.

Both Catherine and Kitty have compassion for him. Eventually Pete is taught to read, released from the cage and discovered to have a keen intellect. Pete falls in love with Kitty and marries her. They have many children. Catherine needs to have children. You see where this is going.

When Catherine ‘does her duty’ she becomes more confident about herself and her abilities. She wants to be given duties; tasks, responsibilities. Henry hesitates. Not a good move.

Background note: Wildwoman is based on real events and people. Obviously Henry II and Catherine de Medici were real people. Henry II had a much older mistress named Lady Diane de Portiers. Pete was ‘really’ Pedro González with a rare condition called ‘hypertrichosis’ to describe that he was very hairy. He was the focus of an experiment to educate him, give him a position at court and marry him off to Catherine de Medici’s Lady-in-Waiting, Kitt. They had seven children  “who went on to be bought and traded by nobles like collectibles.’ (as Kat Sandler says in her programme note: “You can’t make this shit up.”)

The Production. Nick Blais is a wonderful designer—smart, thoughtful and his sets often illuminate the play. What then does one make of his gigantic, overpowering set of what looks like suspended antlers that almost encircle the set? Rather than overpower, (the audience?) how about some illumination? What does that set have to do with that play? Hmmmmm? There is a richness to it for sure, and we are at court. Michelle Tracey’s costumes are sumptuous, richly textured and beautifully establish the elegance of the court of Henry II.  

Playwright Kat Sandler had set out to write a play about a ‘wildman’ who was half-man, half-beast, covered in hair who was the inspiration for the fair tale of “Beauty and the Beast.” But then she became fascinated with the women of the story: Catherine de Medici, (Catherine) (Rose Napoli), Lady Diane de Portiers–Didi (Rosemary Dunsmore) and Kitt-(Kitty) (Gabriella Sundar Singh). Each were considered ‘wildwomen.’ So the play went in another direction.

With each woman, Kat Sandler wrote about women trapped in convention (as Catherine was to have an heir), to serve (as Kitty) did as a Lady-in-Waiting, and to stand in the background as Didi did as Henry’s mistress. The three women wanted more. They wanted responsibility, as Catherine did when she wanted to be on a governing council; as Didi did when she was appointed to that council by Henry (Tony Ofori), at the exclusion of Catherine; and as Kitty did when she wanted to take care of her children and not farmed out to nobles to act as pets. The women had brains, wiliness, perception and watchfulness, all qualities that could earn a bad reputation.

As Catherine, Rose Napoli went from being an eager to please young teen to a woman who plotted and planned to gain power. It was subtle and careful. As Didi, Rosemary Dunsmore has a regal bearing and a maturity that is commanding. She is formidable in owning her place in Henry’s life, but has met her match when she tangles with Rose Napoli’s Catherine. As Kitty, Gabriella Sundar Singh is demure and insecure about a facial deformity cause by an unfortunate meeting with a bear. But Kitty comes into her own confident self when she meets and falls in love with Pete, a compelling Dan Mousseau.

Pete is brought on in a large cage. As Pete, Dan Mousseau is wildly hairy, hunched and skittish as a frightened animal. But as Pete’s humanness is developed, as he is respected by both Catherine and Kitty, Dan Mousseau stands taller (out of the cage) and is calmer. With his hair tied back in a pony tail and in decent clothing, Pete becomes almost courtly; noble, articulate and expresses his thoughtfulness with composure. It’s a wonderful transformation.

Henry is played with a dangerous boyishness by Tony Ofori. He is the king and gradually we see the corrupting power of power. Tony Ofori is petulant, demanding, hot-headed and imperiousness.

Kat Sandler’s play is full of the funny word-play one expects of her work. It’s quick banter, almost one-liners, but mainly smart people riffing with each other. The situations are very funny and how these characters deal with it all is hilarious and chilling.

Kat Sandler also directs with efficiency, quickness and confidence. But the play needs cutting and I doubt the director can tell the playwright to edit the play because the playwright and director are the same person. Also, the ending seems to come from nowhere, unsupported and unearned. It’s a chilling conclusion but it needs to be established more strongly in order to work properly.  

Comment. Wildwoman is Kat Sandler’s most ambitious play. It’s full of invention, imagination, her usual pointed, irreverent humour and creativity. I think it requires another look to edit, trim, cut and tighten. Still very worthy of a visit.

Soulpepper Theatre Presents:

Runs until Oct. 29, 2023

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, but closer to three hours. (1 intermission)

Leave a Comment

Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.