Stage Door Review 2023


Thursday, February 2, 2023


written and directed by Marie-Claire Marcotte

Théâtre français de Toronto, La Troupe du Jour & Fittonia Films, Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs,Toronto

February 1-5, 2023

Marthe: “Chère, ils ne sont pas faits pour durer, c’est tout”

The Théâtre français de Toronto is giving Torontonians a rare chance to see a Franco-Saskatchewanian, or, to use the more elegant French term, fransaskois play and troupe. The play is Flush by Marie-Claire Marcotte, originally from Treaty 4 Territories, Saskatchewan, that had its premiere by La Troupe du Jour as a co-production with Théâtre français de Toronto and Fittonia Films in Saskatoon in February 2022. The Toronto production features the original cast and creative team.

What emerges is a strange, endearing story tinged with absurdism and Canadian Gothic acted by tight-knit ensemble in a highly imaginative production influenced by magic realism. This very winning blend in Flush, also directed by Marcotte, plunges us into a nebulous world of confusion. The clouds gradually, unexpectedly clear as the action progresses.

The play begins when a woman named Corinne knocks on the door of a house in the prairies in the midst of a snowstorm. She is carrying a fishbowl with a goldfish in it which is now dead because of the cold. She has come to see if the basement room listed as for rent is still available. A gruff older woman, Marthe, answers the door and makes Corinne sign a lease before she lets her see the room. She says many people have stayed only one night because they have found the room’s wallpaper so off-putting.

Corinne has brought the fish as a present for the little girl, La Petite, who lives at the house, a girl she has seen on her walks playing in the yard. Yet, once Corinne is in the house, La Petite is not allowed to see her. La Petite has to communicate with Corinne via the register in the hallway that is connected to the register in Corinne’s room.

Corinne, does, however, meet the third member of the household, the odd young man Fred, whose first impulse is to hug Corinne, but who otherwise barely speaks. Fred seems to express himself mostly through playing his guitar and singing, something that Marthe immediately silences with knocks on the floor.

Marthe telephones Corinne to tell her that lodgers are allowed to eat with the family but only if they agree to stay. After Corinne says she’ll stay, Marthe says that tonight there’s only enough food for three so she’ll have to eat with them another night. Throughout the action we wonder if that other night will ever happen.

Although the overall tone is humorous, it’s clear that something terrible has happened to all four characters which has caused them to act in such a strange fashion. We discover that Corinne is not Corinne’s real name and that members of the household accidentally call her “Geneviève” and then correct themselves. Corinne eventually tells them she has taken on a new name because she is trying to start over. “Start over from what?”, we ask ourselves.

She talks on the phone to someone outside with whom she seems to have been in some kind of relationship, a relationship she says cannot go on. Otherwise, we know nothing.

The wallpaper in Corinne’s room is disturbing. It’s walls have been papered over several times and near one corner are messages written by the former occupant(s). If Corinne tears down one message, there is another written on the layer of paper beneath it, one in particular having to do with a woman giving birth and being disgusted by the sight of the baby.

This does connect to Corinne since the goldfish she brought is named Baako, a name from the Akan language of Ghana meaning “first-born”. The title comes into play when Corinne tries to get rid of the dead fish by flushing it down the toilet, only to find that it returns back to her toilet bowl alive. When Corinne does manage to give the fish to La Petite, the girl overfeeds the fish and handles it so much that it dies again. But when it is flushed down the toilet, it still comes back alive.

As the story unfolds, we find that Marthe is the grandmother of La Petite and La Petite does have a proper first name that Marthe refuses to use. We also find that Fred, who we assumed was just a lodger, pays rent for all the three of them. He works in a mine and is bullied at work for being stupid.

Meanwhile, La Petite is prone to tantrums, sometimes so violent Marthe has to tie her up. These cause La Petite to have difficulties at school although she seems very bright. Nevertheless, it is discouraging to find that one of her favourite hobbies is catching and dismembering grasshoppers.

Many young playwright create quirky characters simply to wring laughter from their quirkiness. Marcotte’s characters strike us as odd simply because we don’t know their entire story. What Marcotte gives us in Flush are pieces of a puzzle that gradually and surprisingly come together. Fred at one point refers to this kind of process as finding the line between two stars to make a constellation.

It may be helpful to know that in Canadian French “flusher” has at least two meanings. According to the Office québécois de la langue français ,one is «tirer la chasse d’eau»; the other is “au sens figuré d’«abandonner», de «renvoyer», de «rejeter»”. Metaphorically, then, all four characters have been rejected or abandoned in various ways. The question is whether the four will be able to overcome their grief at having been rejected and finally be able to come together, or at least, in the symbolism of the play, to have dinner at the same table together.

Though the play is only 90 minutes long, Marcotte has given all four of the characters a significant arc to traverse. Chanda Gibson well depicts Corinne’s fear and disgust at having to stay in a house whose inhabitants are so peculiar and where such disturbing messages are written on each layer of her wallpaper. Yet, Gibson, also shows that Corinne, who had been so enchanted by La Petite as to choose to stay in her house, finds that her pleasure in being with La Petite, even if she can’t see her at first, outweighs her displeasure with the house and with Marthe and Fred. Gibson shows us how Corinne, almost through will-power alone, climbs step-by-step out of the pit of despair Corinne has fallen into.

Felix LeBlanc portrays a 90º turnaround in Fred. His inability to speak and socialize properly leads us at first to think he suffers from a mental disability. Marthe, in fact, says as much. Yet, Fred’s increasing contact with Corinne, especially when Baako turns up in his own toilet one day, reveals Fred’s awkwardness simply as extreme shyness. By the end of the play LeBlanc shows us a Fred who is confident and articulate, a change seemingly wrought by Corinne’s increasing belief in him as a good person.

Geneviève Langlois’s Marthe at first comes off as very like the witch of a fairy-tale. When she makes Corinne sign the lease she just happens to carry with her, we wonder what terrible thing Corinne has actually signed up for. The fact that she ties up La Petite and that all of her plants die, even though Fred waters them, contributes to our initial view of Marthe as not merely brusque but maleficent. Despite this first impression, Langlois also suggests that another explanation for Marthe’s behaviour is that Marthe is deeply depressed and can barely cope with the world anymore. Langlois makes us feel that one more disappointment will be too much for Marthe to bear so that she fends off any change in her household with anger towards all. Luckily, as the action moves on, so does Marthe’s mood, and it is a pleasure to observe how Langlois is able to depict this shift in Marthe.

Hannah Forest-Briand is really quite amusing as La Petite. Forest-Briand plays the girl, who wants to be a DJ some day, as an enormous bundle of energy that can’t bear to be confined inside this tiny cabin of a home. Forest-Briand makes it clear that La Petite has needed someone like Corinne to talk to for a long time. To no one else has she been able to express her hopes and dreams or describe her gruesome hobby. In fact, it is through talking to Corinne, even via the registers, that La Petite comes to realize how mean her hobby actually is. Just as the other characters grow out of the our initial impressions of them, so too does La Petite grow before our eyes from a wild ragamuffin into a sweet and proper young girl.

In Flush Marcotte as director uses Taegan O’Bertos’ projections to enhance both the wonder and the off-kilter sensibility of the piece. Brooklynn Bitner and Rory Jewiss have created the two wonderfully dilapidated rooms of the set. Linking the two rooms is a plumbing system of pipes all at crazy angles as if it were designed by Dr. Seuss. Whenever Corinne flushes her toilet, the projections show the progress of the water from her room all around the pipes that improbably go upwards from her basement apartment and around the kitchen to the front and down eventually filling up the one window in the set with water.

For a completely different effect, when Fred begins to marvel at the beauty of the stars, Marcotte has O’Bertos show the one window filled with stars. As Fred watches, the stars start to spill out of the window until they fill the entire room.

The overall effect of the play is magical. We begin with what seems a hopelessly frosty world inhabited by four isolated people who bit by bit let go of their fears and prejudices towards one another to form a new community. Marcotte has so written the play that the action can be interpreted both on a straightforward and on a metaphorical level. Flush is a true pleasure and I hope that the TfT can bring us more from an author who has such a mastery of mixing genres and creating such complex moods.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Hannah Forest-Briand as La Petite, Geneviève Langlois as Marthe and Felix LeBlanc as Fred; Chandra Gibson as Corinne; Chandra Gibson as Corinne; Felix LeBlanc as Fred; Hannah Forest-Briand as La Petite and Felix LeBlanc as Fred. © 2023 Kenton Doupes.

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