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theatre review

A scene from Elle.Michael Cooper

A white person left for dead in the North American wilderness in the days of conquest and colonization. A highly symbolic encounter with a bear – and local indigenous peoples. An epic journey of survival across a frozen landscape seeking revenge.

No, it's not The Revenant, the Alejandro Iñárritu film leading this year's Oscar nominations. It's Elle, Douglas Glover's 2003 Governor-General's Award-winning novel – now transformed into an occasionally tense, but frequently funny play by the actress Severn Thompson.

Thompson, a veteran of both the Stratford and Shaw Festivals, also stars in this mostly solo show as Elle – a character inspired by Marguerite de Roberval, a French noblewoman who was truly marooned on an island in the Gulf of the Saint Lawrence in 1542 by her relative, Jean-Francois de Roberval, the first Lieutenant-General of New France.

We initially encounter Elle in the play as she fornicates frantically in the hold of a ship bound for Canada, despite a very painful toothache that she then resolves with an ingeniously awful bit of do-it-yourself dentistry. It's a bracing opening sequence – simply and cleverly staged by director Christine Brubaker, easily conjuring ship and sea, men and dogs, with only a small chest, a swatch of sail and a bit of rigging.

What do you do with a headstrong woman like this? "Pour acid on her face or maroon her on a deserted island lest she spread the contagion of discontent," Elle tells us in Glover's faux memoir, transformed here into a monologue that winks and nods at the present as well as the past.

Indeed, soon enough, Elle has been lifted into a lifeboat under the orders of a Roberval-inspired character known here as The General – and paddled to shore along with her nurse Bastienne and her lover Richard.

These characters and others appear onstage only in the wry reactions of Thompson – the exception being Itslk, an indigenous man who teaches Elle how to build shelter in the winter and becomes her lover for a spell.

Itslk is incarnated in the flesh by Jonathan Fisher, who – aside from his brief appearance in character – also plays some of composer Lyon Smith's atmospheric music on an electric guitar from the side of the stage.

In Glover's book, Elle compares herself to Iphigenia – the daughter sacrificed on a beach by Agamemnon at the start of the war against the Trojans. It's an intriguing comparison omitted here, but, theatrically, you're more likely to see this 16th-century heroine as a profane sister of one of the young women Shakespeare left stranded in uncharted lands.

Indeed, in contrast to the macho masochism of The Revenant, Elle tells a similar story through a female lens – and largely through a comedic one. Thompson's delivery remains remarkably dry throughout Elle's ordeal as she resorts to eating "books, bird bones and tennis balls". Even her musings on the child growing inside her malnourished body are presented in darkly humorous ways. "The child has grown smaller, as if having second thoughts about being born," she remarks.

This tone – slightly distanced – stems from Thompson's method of adaptation. She hasn't – the short interlude with Itslk aside – transformed the story into a present-tense drama with dialogue, so much as abridged the first-person novel.

There's a fairly new school of adapting books for the stage that also brings a text on stage without touching it – ranging from Rimini Protokoll's avant-garde responses to non-fiction like Das Kapital, to the Elevator Repair Service's entertaining eight-hour Gatz (featuring the entire text of The Great Gatsby), and you might even include Jillian Keiley's recent finessing of The Diary of Anne Frank at the Stratford Festival in that category

Here, however, Thompson and Brubaker stick to Glover's words without acknowledging that they spring from a book – either Glover's, or the fictional memoir that is Elle's – creating an experience that, in fact, feels like a novel disguised as a monologue.

This presents the expected problems when the story picks up pace in its final third. As the narrative shifts into magical realism, and Elle's journey leaves the island, Brubaker runs out of compelling imagery to pair with the words. Instead of building to a dramatic climax, Elle begins to feel like a book on tape. It's at this point that – undeniable appeal of Thompson's performance aside – you see why stories of survival like this thrive best in film instead of theatre.

Elle continues to Jan. 31 (