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Tess Benger, Kat Letwin and Nicole Power star in Soulpepper’s Chasse-galerie. (John Gundy)
Tess Benger, Kat Letwin and Nicole Power star in Soulpepper’s Chasse-galerie. (John Gundy)

Review

Storefront Theatre spans the city with two successful shows Add to ...

Chasse-Galerie

Book adapted by Tyrone Savage

Music and lyrics by James Smith

Starring Tess Benger, Kat Letwin, Nicole Power and Shaina Silver-Baird

At Soulpepper’s Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto

Beaver

Written by Claudia Dey

Directed by Brendan McMurtry-Howlett

Starring Chala Hunter, Katie Swift, Jimi Shlag

At the Storefront Theatre in Toronto

Chasse-Galerie is a hell of a lot of fun. Based on a French-Canadian legend about a flying canoe, coureurs des bois and a deal with the devil, Tyrone Savage and James Smith’s irresistibly irreverent musical comedy debuted at the tiny Storefront Theatre last holiday season – and now is back in bigger, swanker digs at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, thanks to Soulpepper.

As well as having many more seats, there’s now a better selection of whisky to swig along with the four female lumberjacks who are the main characters in this version of the tale – and so dangerously fond of that particular liquor that they risk their souls for a night drinking it in Montreal. These coureuses des bois, as they call themselves, begin the show stuck far in the hinterland trying to meet their timber quota on New Year’s Eve, dreaming of moonshine and Montreal.

Religious Alex (Tess Benger) pines spiritually for Jaune, the woman she wants to settle down with and marry, while neurotic Lea (Nicole Power, from CBC’s Kim’s Convenience) and earthy Michelle (comic powerhouse Kat Letwin) both long for the loins of a randy, red-haired bartender named Michel-Paul. (“I like my women like I like my whisky,” the two-timer says, when he eventually appears. “Alcoholic.”)

Toba (Shaina Silver-Baird), the most sensible of the bunch, has no lover in Montreal – and so is the only one to truly resist when the devil (writer and director Savage, pantomiming it up) shows up at their cabin offering up the services of a flying canoe to transport them there to shout bonne année.

The deal the women agree to is this: If they can make it through the night without swearing or touching a cross, their night of fun comes with no eternal consequences.

Last year, I had a definite favourite of the four coureuses in Letwin. This time around, she’s still the quickest and the crassest and willing to go about anywhere for a joke – whether it’s to be found in the script or not – but there’s a better balance between protagonists. Benger is a wonderful mix of devout and demented, Power’s enjoyably quirky, and Silver-Baird’s sturdy as the straight woman eventually revealed to be the heart of the show.

The true triumph of Chasse-Galerie, however, is the very tuneful score by James Smith (who also plays piano in the show and has a small, charming cameo).

Much of it is in the tradition of French-Canadian folk – allowing for a show-stopping, floor-stomping fiddle battle between one of the women and the devil at the climax. Smith has also composed country tunes, drinking chansons – and did I detect a little homage to Quebec prog-rock bands like Harmonium in some of the more sophisticated songs?

Smith has a knack for the instantly catchy. I walked out humming a song called I Love Whisky and You Do Too (those are all the words to the chorus) and woke up the next day with another with unprintable lyrics in my head.

I’m not entirely sure why this revised remount of Chasse-Galerie felt more complex musically, but more convoluted dramatically. In part it may be that what was a wonderful discovery in an itsy-bitsy, indie theatre now has expectations to live up to. Tyrone’s script, adapted from an earlier collectively created one, could definitely benefit from further honing: A framing device slows things down, while a new subplot involving an angel named Uriel doesn’t quite make sense. It’s still a great lark, however – and the score hints at more.

Across town where Chasse-Galerie got its start, another Storefront show full of funny, female characters is taking up space – a revival of Claudia Dey’s Beaver that feels absolutely necessary. Set in Timmins, Ont., this 2000 play by the playwright-turned-columnist-turned-designer follows a 12-year-old named Beatrice (Chala Hunter) and her differently functional family after the girl’s mother dies. Forgotten at the burial in a blizzard, Beatrice wanders in the snow – her absence unnoticed, at first, by a colourful collection of female relatives bickering and boozing at the wake.

Beaver got negative reviews when it premiered at the Factory Theatre – a mere one star from these pages. Director Brendan McMurtry-Howlett’s simple, spare revival here makes that seem surprising. Dey’s writing (later refined in shows such as Trout Stanley) is rich and funny, with an array of memorable working-class characters who seem larger than life one moment, entirely and touchingly recognizable the next.

There are a host of gem-like performances in this low-budget production. Stratford and Soulpepper vet Carmen Grant is a thin sheet of ice ready to crack as the religious, teetotalling Nora; Katie Swift is bewitchingly bizarre as a firebug feminist named Dorris Delistlo; and PJ Prudat, her hair styled like 1990s Shania Twain, is a disarming mix of sweet and sour as the ghost of Beatrice’s mother – who just wanted to sing country tunes at the bar. (An aspect of the play that links it to the poetic/profane work of Michel Tremblay and Tomson Highway.)

I fell particularly in love with Jimi Shlag as Silo – Beatrice’s alcoholic father, hopeless, lost, yet brimming with love for his daughter. His scenes with fellow barfly Cowboy (the superbly sad sack Waawaate Fobister) play out like hoser high art.

No doubt, Beaver has a sprawling structure – an unwieldy first act, followed by a short one that leaps far into the future, to the wedding day of Beatrice, now known as Beaver. It might work better as three acts. But it weaves its own offbeat magic just the way it is.

The Storefront may have seemed a bit like a clubhouse when it first opened, but these days – with successful shows spanning two ends of the city – it feels more than worthy of wider attention.

Beaver continues through Nov. 27; Chasse-Galerie until Dec. 1 (thestorefronttheatre.com; soulpepper.ca).

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