It’s utterly appropriate that Toto Too’s rip-roaring new comedy, A Fateful Meeting of Les Femmes Fatales, started out as a joke.
When a frequenter of TotoToo approached the group’s artistic director, David Ferguson, and asked why he never programmed lesbian plays, Ferguson replied that if anyone could find one that matched up with TotoToo’s mandate, he would be glad to put it on. Mary Harvey overheard the conversation and said, “Well, I’ll have to write you one!”
She was kidding at the time, but she ended up doing just that.
“It’s the first time that we’ve actually done a predominantly women- and lesbian-oriented play, which is really exciting,” says Ferguson. “I have always tried to create a balance between men and women, equally, in productions. But what we have never been able to do — because we do only Canadian plays — is find a suitable lesbian play.”
From all accounts, Les Femmes Fatales is a funny, intelligently written play about lesbian friendships and relationships. It centres on a murder-mystery party that a lesbian couple, Beth and Michelle, hosts in their home. Each of their guests is invited to dress up as his or her assigned character, and they play the game as a group. Hilarity — and a healthy dose of drama — ensues.
“It’s about the intricacies of [the] relationships amongst all of the characters,” says Harvey, a professional writer, facilitator, emcee and teacher of public speaking who returned to theatre in TotoToo’s production of Kilt last year after a 25-year absence from the stage. “Part of what my friends had talked about is that it would be nice to see the relationships between lesbians and gay men represented. And it would be nice to see a play that’s not about being gay, that’s about something else, and all the people happen to be gay. More like everyday life for people versus it having to be about an issue from the LGBT community.”
Which is interesting because this “wonderful romp of a play” came about after Harvey gave up on the idea of writing a more serious, issue-based play about the homophobia that many gays and lesbians encounter after a long-time partner dies. She planned to base the play on a 10-minute skit she had written in the ’80s for Toronto’s biennial cabaret fundraiser, Fruit Cocktail.
“In those days, you had no rights,” says Harvey. “There was no pension, there was no protection and there was no insurance. It’s very different now. Initially, I looked at that skit and thought, ‘Where would I take it? What would I do with it?’ And I just didn’t feel like doing [it].
“Then I started talking to all kinds of people, [asking], ‘What would you like to see?’ The more people told me about the kinds of things they wanted to see, the more I realized it was not that play. Because that was about homophobia; it was about struggle. And then I had a murder mystery party at my house, which was really silly fun — it was one of the inspirations. That is the long version of how this got started!”
Once she got onto the comedy train with the idea of a murder-mystery party game, it took Harvey only three months to write the play. She finished the first public draft in January.
Taking her writing from a heavier, issue-based perspective into the realm of lighthearted fun is only natural for Harvey, whose background is mostly in comedy. She studied with Second City in Toronto in the ’80s and was then invited to join the touring company — which became her pursuit for the next few years. Very few people know that it was through her work with that company that she fell in love with Ottawa.
“We came [to Ottawa] to do a show. I think we did about 10 weeks of shows here. I fell in love with Ottawa and thought, ‘I’m gonna live there for a while.’ When I was looking around to move [out of Toronto], I thought it would be nice to be back in the same city. I always liked Ottawa and… when you decide to pick up and make a move, it’s nice to know people and get connected. It’s worked out really well.”
Now at the five-year mark, TotoToo is really starting to come into its own. In fact, the group is going in a whole new direction this season, with three homegrown, never-before-produced plays by Ottawa playwrights: Harvey’s Femmes Fatales (Aug 31–Sept 3); His Grace, by Daniel Drolet (Nov 30–Dec 3); and Other Eyes, by Richard Marquis (April 4–7).
“It’s not really a question of trying to get Ottawa on the map,” says Ferguson. “It’s [about] trying to get the gay community engaged in theatre. These are three gay playwrights who need a place to expose their art, and here’s our opportunity. If I have any vision at all for TotoToo Theatre, it’s to engage the gay community and not the theatre community. I think it’s more important to bring gays and lesbians together in a theatrical environment than anything else.”
Les Femmes Fatales is numero uno in TotoToo’s new season of locally written and produced works set to launch at Arts Court over the next nine months.
“This year is probably the most exciting time in TotoToo’s history,” says Ferguson. “I was really excited to get Mary Harvey’s play enacted. [Producing a lesbian play] was something that I had really hoped to achieve in my tenure as artistic director.”