Keep up to date with the weekly Nestruck on Theatre newsletter. Sign up today.
- Title: Les Belles-Soeurs
- Written by: Michel Tremblay, translated by John Van Burek and Bill Glassco
- Director: Esther Jun
- Actors: Lucy Peacock, Seana McKenna, Shannon Taylor, Jane Luk, Akosua Amo-Adem, Irene Poole
- Company: Stratford Festival
- Venue: Festival Theatre
- City: Stratford, Ont.
- Year: Runs to Oct. 28
The Stratford Festival rarely stages Canadian classics – especially at the festival’s august Festival Theatre.
Until now, that is. Michel Tremblay’s 1968 play Les Belles-Soeurs would be near the top of any list of the greatest Canadian plays. (Tremblay’s other works His For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again and Hosanna were revived in 2010 and 2011 at the Tom Patterson and Studio Theatres, and Les Belles-Soeurs itself went up at the Avon Theatre in 1991).
And now it’s getting a lively, crowd-pleasing production by director Esther Jun featuring what must surely be the most diverse cast the script has ever had.
It’s 1965, and Germaine Lauzon (Lucy Peacock) has just won a million trading stamps in a local department store contest. For those without knowledge of trading stamps, they were an early loyalty rewards program in which customers could trade in completed cards full of stamps for merchandise.
Germaine plans to redo her entire apartment with the goodies from the store’s catalogue. But first she has to fill out hundreds of stamp booklets. And so she has enlisted her sisters Rose (Seana McKenna) and Gabrielle (Jane Luk), plus a dozen or so frenemies in her working-class East Montreal neighbourhood, to help her paste the stamps into booklets.
For their efforts, her envious guests will get to snack on peanuts, drink some lukewarm Coke and endure Germaine’s gloating.
Tremblay’s first and still most-famous play altered Quebec theatre with its frank, salty look at working-class women’s lives. As they gossip about others and bemoan their daily routines they provide a funny, poignant yet never sentimental snapshot of their world. They’re rigidly Catholic, and while they are quick to judge others – for what they see as pride, vanity and immoral behaviour – by the play’s end most of them have racked up a few sins themselves.
The challenge in any revival of Les Belles-Soeurs is capturing a tone that avoids condescension. These women might be limited, sneering at classical music and mouthing stereotypes about their immigrant neighbours, but they’re proudly, defiantly themselves. And that comes across vividly in Jun’s empathetic production.
Michelle Bohn’s costumes, from worn, print house dresses to slick sixties duds for the younger women, are filled with telling details – I especially liked the fancy little hat that tells you a lot about the hoity-toity neighbour Lisette de Courval, played to preening perfection by Jennifer Villaverde.
Some elements of the play haven’t aged well. There’s Thérese Dubuc’s (Irene Poole) rough treatment of her immobile mother-in-law Olivine Dubuc (Diana Leblanc), for instance. She slaps and pushes her to get her to behave, and the women around her don’t blink. But again, this feels authentic for the period.
Other aspects are timeless. A discussion about abortion among a group of young women seems depressingly relevant. And from the vantage point of half a century, it’s easy to see the entire work as a critique of capitalism and the patriarchy. Rather than band together and fight the oppressive institutions keeping them down, these women bicker amongst themselves.
Tremblay’s anecdote-filled script doesn’t have much of a plot, and there’s a lack of momentum in the first act. But Jun shapes scenes nicely. An early moment in which a chorus of women recounts their daily regimen is choreographed by movement director Alyssa Martin as if they’re prison inmates marching in a circle. Maddie Bautista’s score has an appropriate liturgical vibe that underlines the role of religion.
Jun stages the famous second act bingo scene like a vision of paradise, the women outfitted with aprons of gold, and a disco ball twirling above in Joanna Yu’s otherwise kitchen sink realism set.
The fact that Tremblay’s play has been translated into many languages and performed around the world speaks to its universality. And so Jun’s diverse casting feels just right. Most of the actors get their time in the spotlight – often quite literally in Louise Guinand’s effective lighting design.
Poole’s Thérese makes an art out of self-pity. Akosua Amo-Adem’s monologue as a middle-aged woman who finds joy in a bar is full of quiet pathos. And McKenna’s monologue about submitting to her husband’s “rights” at least “twice a day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year,” hits with as much force as it must have half a century ago.
I’m not sure the thrust stage does the production any favours; with so many characters onstage, it’s often hard to know where to look, and some moments get lost in the crowd.
But these women’s lives and enduring stories belong on a mainstage for as many people as possible to witness.
In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)