An attractive young woman in a plaid shirt and Daisy Dukes waltzes into a small-town bar, dons a Medusa-like wig and heads to the stage. Then, to the throb of the Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), she immediately whips off her clothes. Suddenly, her naked body is bathed in golden light and the men in the bar begin to sob uncontrollably.
That’s just the opening scene of The Flood Thereafter, the debut work of young Québécoise playwright Sarah Berthiaume. It’s a declaration that what we’re about to see in the next 80 minutes will be brash, sexy and mysterious, not to mention a little absurd.
Berthiaume’s play, which boldly launches a new season in Canadian Stage’s Berkeley Street Theatre, turns out to be an intriguing riff on themes from Greek mythology and fairy tales, set in a depressed St. Lawrence fishing village.
Even before that startling striptease, director Ker Wells and his designers let us know we’re in the world of fantasy and dreams. A boat floats high above Yannik Larivée’s gravel-ringed set, while a massive jumble of furniture forms a lopsided archway upstage and Bonnie Beecher’s blue-green lighting evokes a sense of being underwater. The village appears to be simultaneously beside the river and beneath it.
The story at first is just as disorienting. It’s as if a realistic drama about the plight of Quebec fishermen had somehow got tangled up with scenes from The Odyssey and Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. Berthiaume’s style, too, is a mash-up – coarse colloquial dialogue alternates with poetic narration.
Eventually, however, we realize we’re watching a classic small-town tale. June (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster), the stripper with the lachrymose touch, is the star attraction at the local bar, L’Emotion. It’s the place where the village’s unemployed men hang out – especially Homère (W. Joseph Matheson), an alcoholic ex-fisherman. Homère has a wife, the hairdresser Penelope (Maggie Huculak), who, true to her name, waits for him back at home. But he’s obsessed with June. Who knows, he could even be her father – after all, she’s the illegitimate child of Grace (Patricia Marceau), the former village slut.
Grace now runs the local diner and carries on a love/hate relationship with the bar’s owner, Georges (Oliver Becker). She wants her daughter to quit stripping and help out as a waitress, but bored June is itching to leave this dead-end town. When a young stranger, Denis (Kevin MacDonald), is stranded there after his truck breaks down, she sees an opportunity to escape.
June is a modern-day siren who lures men with her body rather than her voice. Denis is Odysseus in a Habs ball cap, whose fidelity to his girlfriend is tested. Grace, who settled in the village 20 years earlier after being fished out of the river, describes herself as a mermaid still pining for Georges, her prince. And her arrival put the village under a curse.
Based just on this first play, it’s obvious Berthiaume owes a debt to her Quebec elders, particularly Carole Fréchette and Daniel Danis. Flood is also clearly a precocious work that’s impressive rather than moving. But Berthiaume’s writing has wit and imagination, and her poetic passages are spare but vivid.
She finds an ideal interpreter in emerging director Wells, who was a co-founder of Winnipeg’s determinedly surreal Primus Theatre. He brings that same sensibility to his staging, even if it lacks the physicality of Primus, or of the Macbeth he directed at this summer’s Shakespeare in High Park.
The men in his cast are solid, but the women shine. Patricia Marceau’s Grace – the village’s “foreigner” – actually reminds us of the play’s origins with her flavourful Québécois accent and smatterings of French. Ch’ng Lancaster’s June has the insouciance of youth and beauty. It’s ironic, though, that while she appears nude several times, the most seductive performance is given by a fully dressed Huculak as Penelope. Her purring ode to the male neck is the sexiest thing in the play. Maybe she’s the real siren here.