Four Sisters is the third and final play in Toronto playwright Susanna Fournier’s Empire Trilogy − but don’t feel it’s too late to jump into her fictional flattened-time alternate universe now.
This nine-actor show commissioned by Luminato stands on its own as a thoughtful and moving, yet playful dystopian drama − and is stunningly staged by the playwright herself with choreographer Amanda Acorn and scenographer Kaitlin Hickey.
Indeed, Four Sisters is not only a giant leap forward in timeline from the two other Empire plays, The Philosopher’s Wife and The Scavenger’s Daughter – it’s also a major leap forward in terms of the writing, in which the playwright has found a fresh style free from the excess and imitation of the earlier chapters.
So, if you left the previous shows wondering if perhaps The Empire Trilogy had no clothes, you should return for this instalment to understand why Fournier’s project deserved that sizable sesquicentennial Next Chapter grant from the Canada Council.
Four Sisters takes place in the (now democratic) Empire in an area just outside of The City known as The Skirts – so named because it’s on the outskirts but also because, historically, it was a red-light district populated by female sex workers.
In the era of this play, however, a plague has ravaged the Skirts − and Sarah (a tremendous Bea Pizano), a former madam who claims to be close to 300 years old, is left raising four “plague-positive” girls who have lost their mothers: Abby, Beah, Cassie and Dee.
While there is a treatment available for children with this condition, the drugs are expensive for Skirts dwellers. (Well, too expensive without going through an overly complicated bureaucratic process to apply for grants, a clever dystopian detail only an artist could think up.)
One day, a Doctor (Krystina Bojanowski, in a knockabout no-nonsense performance) arrives in the Skirts, offering to treat Sarah’s girls for free with a new, cheaper drug that she is developing.
Sarah worries about letting the Doctor use these children as lab rats − but ultimately agrees.
In the second act, Four Sisters jumps ahead fifteen years to a time when only three of the “sisters” are still alive – and the death of the fourth is still straining their relationships.
The Doctor (now played by Yolanda Bonnell) offers them a share of the profits from the drug she developed – and each must wrestle with whether to take the money and what to do with it. Meanwhile, local police begin to close off roads leading from the City to the Skirts as riots erupt in the impoverished area.
The final act jumps ahead again to a time when Sarah, dying and with dementia, and a stroke-stricken Doctor (played by Bojanowski again) are visited by the surviving adult sisters.
I don’t want to give away too much of the satisfying progression of the plot − but it’s the way Fournier structures her story and her creative use of her cast that impresses most, rather than any particular twist.
While Sarah, Cassie and Dee are played by the same actors throughout, the other characters are played at different ages by different performers.
And yet, the entire cast of nine stays on the stage throughout the show – and their characters listen and react to their pasts or futures, or move around as an emotional counterpoint to the scenes, performing Acorn’s striking choreography.
When Beah, for instance, gets an opportunity to go to a prestigious dance school in the second act, her 24-year-old self (played by Ximena Huizi) stays cool while she receives the news, but her nine-year-old self (played by Aria Evans) goes wild with glee on the outskirts of the main staging area.
Meanwhile, Beah, at age 55 (played by Jennifer Dahl), is off in a far corner, dancing, self-absorbed in a cell of light. It’s only when we get to the third act that we understand what that symbolizes and see how the character arcs are also character circles.
If the doubling or tripling of parts seems confusing, it never is in the performance – dreamily lit by lighting rigs hanging at a strange diagonal.
There’s a pretense-free nature to Fournier’s writing, absent from the earlier chapters, that allows the actors, all clad in grey sweats, to frankly tell us who they are and what they’re doing.
In the previous parts of her trilogy, the playwright also attempted to subvert linear time – to suggest that the idea of progress in her Empire, or in our world, is an illusion, an ideology linked with capitalism and colonialism.
But she did so primarily in the writing, mashing up political slogans from different eras for instance. Now, she’s hit upon how to do it in a truly theatrically compelling way.
After the first weekend of Luminato, I was questioning the wisdom of mixing Canadian commissions together with international productions that have toured for years; it seemed a recipe for making local work pale in comparison. But with Four Sisters, we see an indie artist seizing greater resources and spotlight offered by the festival − with the help of an incredible cast − to take that big step forward.