IN WENDY LILL'S Sisters (Talonbooks, 95 pages, $9.95 paper), a Mother Superior says to a novitiate: "We're like icebergs, Mary, so much is hidden, so many wants we don't even know are there, lying in wait to smash things up" The play begins with the young nun in silhouette, watching a fire consume the residential school where she taught for 15 years, and then sketches in her transformation from a hopeful young woman into a tyrannical teacher, institutionalized - like her charges - within an oppressive and racist church hierarchy. Lill's drama is a complex, compelling exploration of one woman's ever-narrowing choices. The focus is on the convent women who thought they were following God's will; although there are no Natives in the cast, the play effectively illuminates at least some of the nine-tenths of the iceberg hidden under the appalling history of Canada's Native residential schools.
First performed in 1989 at Nova Scotia's Ship's Company Theatre, Sisters is a "reconstruction/memory" play. Times and scenes shift fluidly as the older Sister Mary observes her younger self, portrayed by a second actor, at various stages. After the 1969 burning, she is visited by a lawyer named Stein. While she responds to his request for an explanation with silence or evasions, a melange of scenes takes us back and forth through her life: we observe a youthful romance, her relationships with despotic Mother Agnes and gentle Sister Gabriel, all the years of training in obedience, and that one fierce, rebellious act. Fragmented scenes from the past are skilfully shuffled, with an imaginative use of song and sound throughout. The only disappointing element is the developing intimacy between Mary and Stein: their his-and-hers confessions are less satisfying than the slow flowering of Mary's story. Perhaps this is because Stein has the burden of representing the larger world of love-ins and Vatican Two, all those '60s years of protest. In any case, the excessively tidy ending doesn't seem necessary after the subtlety of a beautifully written and imaginatively designed play that depicts how a heart can freeze and a world go up in flames.
It's good to see Joe Beef (A History of Pointe Saint Charles) (Talonbooks, 103 pages, $9.95 paper) in print, eight years after its first presentation at Black Rock Community Centre in Montreal. David Fennario's irreverent rewriting of approved Canadian history begins - but doesn't end - with Pointe Saint Charles, the working class district that has informed his 16 years of playwriting Joe Beef uses a Brechtian sequence of sketches and musical numbers to humorously and pointedly debunk the official histories of New France, Quebec, and Canada. The narrator, Joe Beef, is based on a dockside tavern owner who fed 1,000 workers during the bitter Lachine Canal Strike in 1887. As part of Fennario's theatre of intervention, Joe steps outside his time to point out who's who among the Molsons and McGills, to question how and why such figures became and remain Canada's power brokers.
Even on the page Joe Beef comes across as visually engaging and theatrically exciting. As few as eight and as many as 28 actors have taken on the many roles of capitalists and voyageurs, union organizers and Irish immigrants. "Peasoups" and soldiers battle over the future of New France, black hockey sticks at the fore; French and English workers join together in a strike as "les Blokes" and "les Pepsis," demonstrating the play's creed: 'Always throw the first punch and stand together," Meanwhile, rank capitalists wryly point out their uses as vaudeville villains. Fennario's social concerns and socialist solutions are clear throughout Joe Beef, and he delivers his fierce, sometimes accusatory message with flavourful dialogue and tongue-in-cheek characterizations. Joe Beef was first produced by an amateur company named after the Black Rock that marks the mass grave of Irish immigrants who died from typhoid fever between 1844 and 1847; it is a play rooted in a particular place and community, but resonates beyond these bounds.
In The Dunsmuirs: Alone at the Edge (Talonbooks, 103 pages, $10.95 paper), Rod Langley presents some much more conventional history. The play is the first in a trilogy that chronicles a powerful Vancouver Island business family, and it has been performed at the Nanaimo Festival for several years. Robert Dunsmuir came from Scotland to work in the Nanaimo coalmines as an indentured labourer with the Hudson's Bay Company. With his discovery of a great coal seam, the clan's bloody climb to success begins. Along the way, the family members turn into carbon copies of the exploitative employers who once made their own lives miserable. Threats to the clan are quickly turned aside by Robert's wife, Joan, who somewhat abruptly turns into a Lady Macbeth figure, urging her husband to use scab labour and evict his workers. (Interestingly, Langley's depiction of the Dunsmuir family includes the two sons, Robert and John, but leaves out the eight daughters.) Although the family's fortunes make compelling history, the play is strait-jacketed by realism and its one-two-three chronology. In Alone at the Edge, Langley indulges the family myth, ending the play with a reiteration of Dunsmuir's oft-repeated dream of building his wife a fary-tale castle.
Michel Tremblay's dramatic presentations of his fictional clan are not so constrained by fidelity to fact and everyday time. La Maison Suspendue (Talonbooks, 101 pages, $9.95 paper), translated by John Van Burek, is a delightful continuation of his family saga and features a number of characters familiar from earlier plays and novels, including the teacher Jean-Marc, the ferocious Albertine, ant her outrageous brother, Edouard. This delicate and evocative drama portrays three generations of a family unwittingly co-existing on the veranda of a country house. Caught in three different times, 1910, 1950, and 1990, they pass by - but never see - each other, though the 11-year-old boy in each grouping is played by the same actor and provides a bridge. Throughout, words and images overlap, in an echo effect that highlights the sometimes generous, sometimes pitiless legacies distributed among family members.
La Maison Suspendue is about the ways in which a family creates and recreates itself through its stories. The play is as enjoyable on the page as in performance, because Tremblay lends his skill as a storyteller to his characters. Josaphat's tall tale of the devil carrying the Duhamel house to parties in the city enchants. The house becomes a metaphor for the entire world, though perhaps the displacement at the end is too literal. There is conflict within the play - Victoire and her husband-brother disagree bitterly over moving to "Morial" and Edouard and Albertine continue their pitched battle - but the mood is for the most part gentle, peaceful. These characters, suspended in the silky dark of one country evening, are joined by the note of hope at the end.
The tenderness of La Maison Suspendue is many years removed from the rage in an earlier Tremblay play, Hosanna (Talonbooks, 87 pages, $10.95 paper), although the latter also ends in at least a temporary truce between its feuding characters. First performed in 1973 and now brought out in a revised English version by the same translators, John Van Burek and Bill Glassco, Hosanna is as mesmerizing as ever. Through the character of a transvestite obsessed with playing Liz Taylor as Cleopatra, Tremblay attacks Quebec's identification with imported myths; the play strips away
pretensions and false hopes, personal and public. Changes in the translation seem cosmetic. A few awkward sentences have been polished, and Quebecois swear-words and phrases have been replaced with the English equivalent ("hein becomes "eh," "Maman" turns into "Mommy"). Interestingly, the more recent La Maison Suspendue translation revels in Quebecois exclamations and phrases. "Montreal" was accented in the original Hosanna, but not in this version, though it becomes "Morial" in La Maison Suspendue. Is the intention to make Hosanna a more universal figure by removing such "local" touches? Certainly, there has been one loss: the production photos of Talonbooks' earlier printings have been dropped. (For all the plays reviewed here, a brief introduction and some stills would add a great deal for those who don't have the opportunity to go to the productions.)
Where is Kabuki? (Playwrights Canada, 63 pages, $9.95 paper), by Don Druick, is set in 1888 in Tokyo and features seven male characters involved in a Kabuki theatre, including the Onnagata, a female impersonator. Unlike Hosanna, she never removes her female costume, nor is the intent of such disguise questioned. The action takes place backstage over the course of one day, and pivots on the choice of the next play for the theatre. The Master Playwright, whose plot would ordinarily be chosen automatically, is forced to compete with both a Visiting Playwright from the South and the rebellious Onnagata, who with the support of the rich Backer are proposing a sensational and money-luring production. Druick's play was well received during its Buddies in Bad Times Theatre production in Toronto in 1989, but is perhaps less striking in print, shorn of the visual appeal of formal dress and stylized mannerisms. The way the civilities are frequently disrupted by contemporary obscenities leads one to suspect that the traditions of the classic Japanese theatre are being freely adapted to Druick's purposes. The playwright's notes mention that the ever-contemporary theme is the "stormy love affair between art and box office," but although it's clear that Canadian theatre faces threats from the entertainment machine of our own southern neighbours, it's hard to read much more into the connection. But though the central metaphor, like some of the play's heightened language, seems strained, the conceit is admirably sustained and the battle lines cleverly drawn.
The Bootlegger Blues (Fifth House, 94 pages, $10.95 paper) asks no such sweeping questions and relies on broad physical humour, underwear scenes, and puns to keep its engine revving. Billed as a "romantic situation comedy," Drew Hayden Taylor's play is set on a reserve during a powwow weekend. Martha, a pillar of the community, has been unable to sell 143 cases of beer for a church fundraising activity. Her son, in training as a "special constable," and her daughter, stuck in a boring relationship until Noble (as in "noble savage") comes along, inadvertently suggest an illegal solution. Produced in 1990 by the De-Ba-Jeh-Mu-Jig Theatre Group on Manitoulin Island, The Bootlegger Blues is fun but not filling. Such problems as cousins falling in love with each other are easily solved, and every human interaction seems an excuse for a joke. Still, the energy is high, the beer starts to sell, and even the most stuffed shirt character finally figures out how to go with the flow. In The Bootlegger Blues, there's no bitter pill to swallow, just comedy as frothy as a hastily poured light beer.