Toronto
3 min

Rags-to-bitches

Flawed show still resonates

THE JOY OF JOUAL. Les Belles Soeurs' working-class heroines (including Janet Amos, Ellen-Ray Hennessy, Nicola Cavendish and Deborah Grover) are something to see. Credit: Cylla von Tiedemann

Experts are vague on when theatre as we know it started in English Canada – the early ’70s will suffice.



But there’s no doubt as to when it began for the French. Modern Quebec theatre, as everyone there knows, started August 1968 with Les Belles Soeurs (The Sisters-In-Law). An all-female comedy set in working class Montreal by a young typesetter named Michel Tremblay, it was the first play to use the French of the streets, as opposed to official, Radio-Canada French.



And it got produced by a fluke – at the last minute a scheduled script was suddenly unavailable, and the Theatre de Rideau Vert took a gamble on a first-time playwright’s earthy, funny look at women connected by marriage, neighborhood and poverty.



An instant hit, Les Belles Soeurs has been revived many times around the glove. (At the World Stage festival here a few years ago, a Scottish company offered an adaptation set among the poor of Glasgow called The Guid Sisters.)



I’ve seen two recent productions in English, and while the script is by no means perfect or even particularly profound, I’m convinced it has qualities that can’t be diminished by flaws in casting or mise-en-scene. It’s virtually actor- and director-proof.



The plot starts with a contest windfall enjoyed by housewife Germaine Lauzon, who rashly condescends to let her family and neighbours help her reap it, oblivious to the envy she stirs up. It’s the perfect premise to exploit the conflicts of 15 unhappy females who bitch and connive through two acts, often stepping into a spot downstage centre to speak directly to the audience.



Tremblay captured the women with an accuracy and fondness that makes them alive, even though they are all too human in their maliciousness. It’s no accident that these characters resonate with gay men – it’s in the classic tradition of the gay writer bearing witness to a shared oppression and misery. Beyond that, these gals are funny as hell and frequently touching in their plight, which leaves room for both drag queen-like excesses as well as sociological insight.



And it’s nothing if not political. With just the right mix of disapproval and love, Tremblay shows how poverty and the Catholic church have set the women at one another’s throat when, with a little more raised consciousness, they might have offered each other more support.



My first Belles Soeurs this year played three nights in January in the same anglophone suburb of Montreal where I grew up. My own mother was in the amateur cast, directed by a local schoolteacher. Flubbed lines and cheap production values took their toll, but the audience embraced the players with good will and strict attention, and the women on stage frequently surpassed expectations (including Mom, who played the snotty bitch in mink).



But most importantly, the material shone through. There were even a few times when actor and part melded in a kind of church basement truthfulness that owed as much to luck as to talent. With a play this rich, you could enjoy it on many levels, including the irony of watching yourself watch an anglophone cast doing a French play in English in Quebec.



So I looked forward to Canadian Stage’s ambitious production, directed by original cast member Denise Filiatraut (who also happens to be the daughter of my hometown’s former chief of police!). Alas, it too isn’t what it might have been – though I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.



Actors on stage at the Bluma Appel seemed to pause, think and react before picking up their cues, which was probably intended to underscore pathos or motivation but too often looked like under-rehearsal. Some of this was so pronounced that I felt something akin to self-consciousness and pity for actors caught in this molasses, reactions which don’t exactly foster the seamless absorption of a show by any audience.



But again the cast were often able to win me over.



Janet Wright is a feisty Germaine. Adele Reinhardt in a sleeveless, shapeless shift, hairnet and running shoes spits out the first wave of venom and envy that sets the tone of the night. Best of all is Nicola Cavendish, one of the world’s (yes, I’ll say it ) top comic actors, who is also up to handling the heartbreak and resentment of the show’s main figure, the bitter Rose Ouiment.



Ellen-Ray Hennessy, almost unrecognizable as Madame Dubuc in a wheelchair, kept the old lady real and resisted mugging (and she’s a girl who can mug). A knock-’em-dead dance ode to Bingo practically stops the show; a bit more of this boldness would not have gone amiss.



The “O Canada” ending, sung to a defeated Germaine after all her prize stamps are pilfered, has always been a little bizarre and anticlimactic.



But three curtain calls and a partially standing ovation showed that the audience thought itself pleased.





Les Belles Soeurs runs till Sat, May 1 at the Bluma Appel (27 Front St E). Tix cost $25 to $55; call (416) 368-3110.