Sarah Bernhardt’s biography (plural - there are many), recounts a 1910 episode in which she appeared for one night only at New York’s Globe Theatre in a play called, Judas, which was promptly banned as indecent in New York, Washington and Boston. The play was written by John Wesley De Kay, a flamboyant entrepreneur turned playwright who hired the Divine One to star in the role of Mary Magdalene. De Kay (who, as a businessman, was a kind of Donald Trump of his day) portrays Mary as the lover of Pontius Pilate before she hops into bed with Judas Iscariot on her way to bedding Jesus.
In taking on the role, was Bernhardt still smarting from her Canadian tour of five years earlier when the Archbishop of Quebec City had her banned from performing in the city because he considered her plays and her performances immoral? Did she now want to ensure that blasphemy was listed prominently as one of her cardinal sins?
Playwright Michel Marc Bouchard in his new play, The Divine: A Play for Sarah Bernhardt, commissioned by the Shaw Festival and currently running in repertory there until October 11, does not attempt to answer this question but does raise a substantial number of others.
This proves to be both a blessing and a curse.
It is a blessing for Bouchard because it allows this deeply intellectual and cogent playwright to investigate the social milieu of the period. His play focusses on the Quebec City banning of Bernhardt and also encompasses a look at the rigid class structure of the time and the oppressive role of the Catholic church whose hierarchy the ruling Anglais willingly left in place because it served their purposes. He also interrogates the harsh conditions rendered by industrial capitalism with a portrayal of the sweatshops wringing the life’s blood out of the working poor of the day. And finally he courageously challenges an educational system that was corrupted in large part by a church whose attendant crimes against children and adolescents are by now well documented.
This is a lot of ground to cover in one evening and therein lies the curse.
Jackie Maxwell, who directed the play with consummate skill, also lists herself as dramaturge which, for Bouchard’s play, apparently saw a gestation period of four years in development at the Shaw Festival. As director she does a great job, as dramaturge not so much. Fiona Reid as Sarah Bernhardt makes a belated entrance in the first act (perhaps to facilitate a laugh line later on in which Bernhardt is rejecting a script she dislikes because her character only enters late into the first act). Reid is quite wonderful in her largely comedic approach to the role but we don’t get too much sense of her interaction with the authorities of the day until the play’s epilogue in which we are told (by another character) how an angry mob hounded her out of town and wrote “Dirty Jew” on her personal railway car. This is an event that could have served as a compelling climax in the second act rather than a narrated afterthought in an epilogue.
But Maxwell the director ultimately saves the day with an excellently cast ensemble featuring top notch performances by Reid, Wade Bogert-Obrien as Talbot, a young man who is entering the priesthood, and Ben Sanders as the young seminarian with the soul of a playwright who would rather be entering the theatre. But it remains with the heart wrenching performance delivered by Mary Haney as Mrs. Talbot to truly anchor this play (the counterweight really to the ego driven Bernhardt) and in so doing remind us what the word “divine” really means.
The opening of The Lady From the Sea is already underway as we enter the Shaw Festival’s Court House Theatre. We see a tall, flat rock with jagged sides (the centerpiece of Camellia Koo’s striking set). At the end of this cliff-like overhang lies a crumpled bathrobe. The sound of waves can be heard crashing on the beach below. Someone has gone for a swim. The houselights go to dark signaling the play’s beginning and then quickly rise again revealing the wet, naked body of the play’s leading character, Ellida Wangel, the wife of Dr. Wangle, a small town physician. She lays prostrate on top of the rock and reaches for her robe, exhausted after her plunge into the ocean. We hear her gasp for breath and she has a haunted look in her eyes.
After director Meg Roe so brilliantly focusses our attention with this opening scene, she wisely lets the playwright, Henrik Ibsen, start doing the talking. Moya O’Connell (ironically starring in a role also favored by Sarah Bernhardt) plays the obsessed (and oppressed) Ellida, with all the qualities of a Shavian feminist sprinkled with the despair and longing that is the currency of every Ibsen heroine. O’Connell is onstage almost throughout the play and we are riveted to her every word and emotion.
Couple this with Ric Reid’s outstanding performance as the compassionate and loyal husband, Dr. Wangel, and the plot is set for the entrance of the tall, dark Stranger (played here by Mark Uhre). The sub-plot involving Ballested, the artist-in-residence (Neil Barclay), and Dr. Wangel’s family Bolette (Jacqueline Thair), Hilde (Darcy Gerhart) along with a suitor and a tutor - played by Kyle Blair and Andrew Bunker respectively - all mesh well in this perfect adaptation by Erin Shields who mercifully took Ibsen’s five acts and distilled them to a brisk 90 minute emotional roller coaster that remains true to the playwright’s intentions.
887 is an autobiographical solo tour de force by Robert Lepage that premiered in Toronto as part of the Pan Am Game’s Panamania cultural festival. In this latest Ex Machina production, Lepage once again teaches us about a theatre of possibilities where writing, acting, directing and scene design all come together with stunning effect while lifting the heart and challenging the intellect. The cultural, territorial, historical and political landscape of Lepage’s native Quebec is portrayed here not only with an amazing thematic relevancy but with an awesome and powerful coherence articulated by Lapage’s acute sense of theatricality.
In 1970, the political and cultural struggle of the Quebec people was at its height. Lepage was thirteen years old and living through traumatic times with his family in a small apartment on 887 Murray Avenue (not all that far from where he lives today in Quebec City). His father, to whom this production is dedicated, was a taxi cab driver and a strong partisan of the working class but not a separatist.
Flash forward to 2010 and the now 52 year old Lepage is ask to participate in a commemoration of a cultural event that occurred exactly forty years previously and was called La nuit de la poesie (the night of poets) when the Quebecois literary champions of the movement took the stage in Montreal to denounce much that they saw wrong with the world. Lepage was asked to recite a poetic polemic by Michele Lalonde entitled, Speak White, for the commemorative performance. His struggle to memorize the text and his journey through history, memory, personal reminiscence - attended by no little amount of post traumatic stress from his childhood - accounts for the raw material of the play.
will be a great deal written about 887 as it now makes its way through the festival circuits and touring
venues internationally. If it comes to a festival or theatre near you, please
don’t miss it. The Ex Machina company has again delivered something truly
extraordinary. A real gift from the gods.
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