Stage Door Review 2023

Les Belles-Soeurs

Sunday, August 27, 2023


by Michel Tremblay, translated by John Van Burek & Bill Glassco, directed by Esther Jun

Stratford Festival, Festival Theatre, Stratford

August 25-October 28, 2023

Chorus: “I hate my life!”

Les Belles-Soeurs (1968) by Michel Tremblay is one of the undisputed masterpieces of Canadian drama. To have it and anther undisputed masterpiece James Reaney’s The Donnellys: A Trilogy (1973-75) playing at the Blyth Festival, just 45 minutes from Stratford, means that a trip to the Stratford area right now is an absolute must for any student or teacher of Canadian drama as well as any theatre-goer who enjoys fine drama no matter what its country of origin.

Tremblay’s play and Reaney’s trilogy, though each reflects the history of its own province, namely Quebec and Ontario, both strangely reflect the same theme of punishment for non-conformity. This notion exists outside of Canada in countries where conformity is valued over individualism. Australia and New Zealand have the term “tall poppy syndrome”, where “cutting down the tall poppy” means putting a successful person or upstart in his place. In Japan, an often-heard expression is: “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down” (“出る杭は打たれるとは”). In both Tremblay and Reaney the central figure or figures distinguish themselves as different and successful, and in both they are annihilated in different ways.

Germaine Lauzon, an ordinary housewife in Montreal in the mid 1960s, has had the miraculous good fortune to have won one million trading stamps in a contest. For those unfamiliar with trading stamps, a practice that died out in this century, stores would give stamps to clients according to the amount they purchased as part of a loyalty reward system. Those stamps would be pasted into books, typically 1200 per book, and the books redeemed for goods. Trading stamps have now been replaced with loyalty cards for stores and with frequent flyer points for airlines.

When we first encounter Germaine she is pouring over a catalogue dreaming of all the things she will be able to acquire “for free” with all her stamps. We hear her bragging over the phone about how she plans to replace all her appliances, furniture, wallpaper and more with her stamps.

The trick, of course, is how to paste one million stamps into the booklets in order to redeem them. Germaine’s bright idea is to have a stamp pasting party. As she tells her daughter Linda, she has invited all her relatives, friends and neighbours over to help her paste in stamps.

Germaine’s giddy joy is first countered by Linda who wants to go out with friends and wants nothing to do with Germaine’s party or her friends. Germaine nixes this, but Linda goes out anyway. The second person to express little pleasure in Germaine’s idea is the first guest to arrive, her neighbour Marie-Ange (Shannon Taylor seething with anger), who announces directly to the audience that she is insanely jealous of Germaine and thinks that contests like the one Germaine has won, should be abolished because they set one person above others. As she says, “The ones with all the luck are the ones who least deserve it”.

Eventually, there will be 15 women on stage, and Marie-Ange’s monologue is the first speech directly to the audience that 12 of the women will give. As with Marie-Ange, these monologues serve to reveal the inner thoughts of each woman that they are hiding from all the rest. Marie-Ange, a latent socialist, is the first to put a few books she has filled not into the box for completed books, but into her purse. Surely a woman with a million stamps won’t miss a few booklets.

During the course of the action we meet Germaine’s sisters Rose, Gabrielle and the long-estranged Pierrette. We meet Germain’s friends Des-Neiges, Lisette, Rhéauna and her friend Angéline, Yvette, and her sister-in-law Thérèse Dubuc, who brings along her 93-year-old mother-in-law Olivine, a hostile woman who bites and is confined to a wheelchair. We also meet two of Linda’s friends, Lise and Ginette, one of whom has a serious problem. Thus Tremblay presents us with a panoply of Québécois womanhood ranging from ages 20 to age 90. The common refrains from all the older women’s monologues are “I hate my life” and “Do I look like someone who has ever won anything?”

Lucy Peacock is excellent as Germain Lauzon, ecstatic with joy at her win but is also comically naïve in believing her friends and relatives will share in her happiness and not become annoyed when she enumerates all the purchases she plans to make. Peacock also brings out the humour in Germain’s rapid changes of tone, from delight and cooing at her luck to viciousness and ranting when she chews out Linda for not obeying her. At the conclusion, though her words only concern the loss of her stamps, Peacock infuses her cries with such emotion that we feel Germaine has lost something far more important – the belief that anyone even likes her.

As Linda, Ijeoma Emesowum provides an excellent foil to Germaine’s excesses both of happiness and of anger. Though Linda does disobey her mother, Emesowum shows that she also does so with a reason and speaks coolly to counter her mother’s tirades. Emesowum gives us the impression that the next generation is not as confused or materialistic as the older one. Tremblay wrote the play in 1965, five years after the Quiet Revolution and may be contrasting those who grew up during the Duplessis years with those who grew up under the new regime.

Seana McKenna is a hoot as Germaine’s sister Rose. Seana plays Rose as a joker and loudmouth, ready to cut down anyone who sets themselves up as pious, sophisticated or knowledgeable. This allows McKenna to launch one zinger after another shooting down the other women’s pretentions. There is, however, another side to Rose’s mockery. In her monologue we discover that her husband’s unceasing demands for his conjugal rights have made her cynical about marriage and every other ideal she once revered. After playing so many monarchs and high-born women, it's a pleasure to see McKenna dig into the role of a working-class woman like Rose.

Although the title of the play is Les Belles-Soeurs (“The Sisters-in-Law”), there is only one character who is specifically identified as a sister-in-law and that is Thérèse Dubuc, the sister-in-law of Germaine. Thérèse’s monologue is directed to the other women, not to the audience as are the others. The women agree that Thérèse has the worst story of them all. She had had ambitions to be a singer, but that life became impossible when she had children and now she has even less time since she must constantly watch over her 93-year-old mother-in-law Olivine. Thérèse has absolutely no time to herself and her she seems to expend her pent-up anger in beating Olivine. Olivine, in return, responds to Thérèse’s mishandling by becoming even more unmanageable and dangerous. Thus, Thérèse’s anger due to her unfulfilled life sets up a vicious circle between her and Olivine.

Irene Poole as Thérèse and Diana Leblanc as Olivine make this relationship clearer than I’ve ever seen it before. Tremblay, writing before the term “elder abuse” was current, means Thérèse’s actions to be funny, but Poole plays them as if they are nasty. Leblanc, in turn, gives Olivine’s actions a clownesque quality so that we don’t really worry about Olivine’s welfare. Yet, as the play progresses it is clear that Thérèse regards Olivine more as a thing than a person.

Poole and Leblanc are both in top form. Poole can make us sympathetic with Thérèse’s terrible life and still make us aghast at how she treats Olivine. Leblanc reveals a gift for physical comedy I’ve never seen before and she is hilarious. Leblanc never takes focus away from the others, but I did find myself glancing over to her frequently to see what business – staring at her shoe, getting into her wheelchair wrong way round – Leblanc was undertaking in the background.

If Thérèse is the only “belle-soeur” mentioned in the play, her mistreatment of Olivine and the anger that drives that mistreatment become in miniature a symbol of what happens in the action of the play. Tremblay shows that it is the women’s unhappiness in life that drives them to deprive Germaine of her happiness. Attacking each other, of course, is not the solution to their problems. Tremblay’s point is that a non-patriarchal, non-religious society needs to evolve that values women as individuals, not just housewives, and offers them as many chances of self-fulfilment as men have.

Tremblay’s portrait of the women Germaine has invited is a portrait of women enforcing on each other the same rules they suffer from. That is why someone like Pierrette, Germaine’s sister who works as a prostitute, is so reviled and treated as an outcast. Choosing sex was Pierrette’s only way to live an independent life. Yet, as we discover when Allison Edwards-Crewe powerfully delivers Pierrette’s agonized monologue, she has reached the age when she is no desirable and her man has abandoned her.

Though Les Belles-Soeurs is normally a comedy, Tremblay has given it structures that reference Greek tragedy. Periodically, the women speak as in unison as a chorus. Sometimes, they even break into two half-choruses as in ancient drama. The best example of this is the “Ode to Bingo”, presented exactly like an ancient choral ode. Director Esther Jun obtains absolute precision from the ensemble in switching from dialogue to choral outbursts and back.

The main flaw of the present production is that it doesn’t suit the Festival Theatre. When the play was presented in 1991 it was at the Avon Theatre. At the Festival Theatre, designer Joanna Yu has tried to make Germaine’s kitchen look cramped by squeezing her appliances under the steps leading to the upstage balcony, but that still leaves the large, spacious thrust completey open. When Linda wonders how Germaine plans to cram 15 people into her kitchen, the answer on the Festival stage is “Easily”.

Jun follows Tremblay’s directions but having a character come downstage centre to deliver a monologue is quite different on a proscenium stage than on thrust stage. On the first everyone can see the speaker. On the second about a third of the audience is looking at her back. In other respects, too, Jun’s blocking is very forward-facing.

Though Les Belles-Soeurs is an acknowledged masterpiece, the requirement of such a large cast means that chances to see it do not arise very often. Even if the present venue is not ideal, the performances are strong and you certainly do not want to wait another 32 years hoping Stratford will present it again.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Ensemble performing the “Ode to Bingo”, Lucy Peacock as Germaine (centre); Lucy Peacock as Germaine; (at table) Seana McKenna as Rose, Lucy Peacock as Germaine and Jane Luk as Gabrielle; (foreground) Shannon Taylor as Marie-Ange (far left), Diana Leblanc as Olivine (in wheelchair), Irene Poole as Thérèse (crouching) and Lucy Peacock as Germaine (searching box). © 2023 David Hou.

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