Les Belles-soeurs still speaks sharply to the power of women on-stage and the on­go­ing “envy econ­omy”

The Georgia Straight - - Contents - By Alexan­der Varty

More than 50 years af­ter the de­but of Que­bec play­wright Michel Trem­blay’s in­cen­di­ary Les Belles-soeurs, di­rec­tor Diane Brown wants to re­main true to his orig­i­nal vi­sion.

If he were to say it to­day, play­wright Michel Trem­blay would un­doubt­edly find him­self on some kind of no-fly list, or at least in Face­book jail. But in 1968, at the height of the Quiet Revo­lu­tion in Que­bec, his com­ment made all kinds of sense. Maybe it still does.

“I want to put a bomb in the fam­ily cell,” Que­bec’s mod­ern-day Shake­speare fa­mously wrote. “I hate what the fam­ily and the church did to me and the peo­ple of my coun­try.”

Gay, work­ing-class, and fab­u­lously ta­lented, Trem­blay was ex­press­ing his dis­gust with a sys­tem that was con­spir­ing against his po­ten­tial. And al­though things have changed in Que­bec, and Canada as a whole, enough has re­mained the same that Diane Brown, who’s helm­ing the first lo­cal, English­language pro­duc­tion of Trem­blay’s

Les Belles-soeurs, the­atri­cal de­but, is tak­ing his re­mark as a kind of touch­stone.

“You know, that’s a pretty ex­treme thing to say,” the di­rec­tor tells the Straight,

on the line from a Rich­mond re­hearsal hall. “But the no­tion of the ide­al­ized French-cana­dian fam­ily was very strong at the time, and he blew that up. And an­other great quote of his that I’d like to share with you is about his idea of putting women on-stage. He put 15 women on-stage be­cause, he said, no­body else was. The quote is: ‘One woman com­plain­ing is piti­ful. Five women say­ing they are un­happy with their lives at the same time is the be­gin­ning of a revo­lu­tion.’ ”

Given what’s play­ing out south of the bor­der, noth­ing else should be nec­es­sary

Les Belles-soeurs’ to es­tab­lish rel­e­vance, even if this year marks the 50th an­niver­sary of the 1965 script’s on-stage de­but. And Brown points out that while the Catholic Church’s grip on Que­bec has rad­i­cally less­ened, un­fet­tered cap­i­tal­ism—the other tar­get of Trem­blay’s righ­teous ire—is still an ex­is­ten­tial

Les Belles-soeurs’ threat to our free­dom. bit­terly pointed satire of “the envy econ­omy”, she says, still holds true.

“This is what ‘every­one out for them­selves’ looks like—es­pe­cially in this era of [Don­ald] Trump, with racism and misog­yny and all those hate val­ues that are a prod­uct, re­ally, of rud­der­less cap­i­tal­ism,” Brown con­tends. “These hate val­ues are be­ing nor­mal­ized, so it’s dis­turb­ing for me to re­al­ize how in­cred­i­bly timely this piece is.

“What we see is how this ev­ery­one­out-for-them­selves men­tal­ity ends up in ut­ter chaos and ruin, and costs the char­ac­ters ev­ery­thing, per­son­ally.”

It’s true that the fram­ing de­vice—a Mon­treal housewife, Ger­maine Lau­zon, wins a small for­tune in cus­tomer­loy­alty stamps, ex­cit­ing her fam­ily and neigh­bours’ envy—now seems al­most an­tique. Redeemable stamps have been re­placed by credit-card “re­wards”, but hu­man na­ture hasn’t changed.

“These stamps have to be pasted into book­lets. They’re redeemable for fur­ni­ture and ap­pli­ances, and she’s won an ex­tra­or­di­nary amount, so she in­vites her sis­ters and her daugh­ters and her neigh­bours to come over and help her paste them into these book­lets,” Brown ex­plains. “Over the course of the evening we get to know these women, and we hear how they treat each other, how they treat their chil­dren… There’s a lot of strife be­tween the older gen­er­a­tion and the younger gen­er­a­tion; it’s very ex­plo­sive there, in terms of the old val­ues of the Catholic Church ver­sus the newer, sec­u­lar val­ues. They also just steal from her, even­tu­ally. They shame­lessly just steal her stuff, be­cause they can’t stand that she’s raised her sta­tus within the tribe.

“It’s com­pet­i­tive, it’s ugly, and we pro­fess that it isn’t,” she adds. “And the hope­less­ness of their sit­u­a­tion is re­ally beau­ti­fully and bru­tally brought to life by Trem­blay’s writ­ing.”

There’s an­other fac­tor at play here, be­yond the on­go­ing sig­nif­i­cance of Trem­blay’s script and the 50th an­niver­sary of its de­but. This year also marks the 30th an­niver­sary of Brown’s Ruby Slip­pers Theatre, and mount­ing Les Belles-soeurs

is a near-per­fect way of cel­e­brat­ing the com­pany’s man­date.

A key as­pect of Ruby Slip­pers’ mis­sion state­ment is pro­mot­ing “cross­cul­tural pol­li­na­tion with French­cana­dian plays in English trans­la­tion on the West Coast; no­body else does that,” Brown says. An­other core value, she con­tin­ues, is “fur­ther­ing the voices of women and di­ver­sity in theatre”,

Les Belles-soeurs and while was writ­ten by a man, the act of bring­ing 15 women to­gether on-stage re­mains a rad­i­cal act. And then there’s the fact that the cast, which en­com­passes ris­ing stars, es­tab­lished ac­tors, and beloved vet­er­ans of the Van­cou­ver stage, is a rare ex­am­ple of truly multi­gen­er­a­tional theatre, an­other of Brown’s di­rec­to­rial con­cerns.

So far, all of those things seem to be com­ing to­gether in a grat­i­fy­ing way. “The spirit in the re­hearsal hall is re­ally high. Mo­rale is re­ally high—and there’s a lot of laugh­ter,” Brown says. “It’s a dark com­edy. It’s a very dark com­edy, but there’s a lot of hu­mour that can come out of pain and tragedy. I think we all know this; that’s what satire and dark com­edy are based on.”

Ruby Slip­pers Theatre presents Les Bel­lessoeurs at the Rich­mond Gate­way Theatre from Thurs­day (Septem­ber 27) to Oc­to­ber 6.

David Cooper photo.

In 1965’s Les Belles-soeurs (with, left to right, Melissa Oei, France Per­ras, and Agnes Tong), a Mon­treal housewife wins a small for­tune in cus­tomer-loy­alty stamps, prompt­ing ex­cite­ment in her fam­ily and all-out jeal­ousy from her neigh­bours.

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