The Philoso­pher’s Wife is en­livened by ‘un­fore­seen cir­cum­stances’

The Globe and Mail (Alberta Edition) - - ARTS - J. KELLY NESTRUCK THEATRE RE­VIEW

The Philoso­pher’s Wife AKI STU­DIO AT DANIELS SPEC­TRUM I N TORONTO

Writ­ten by Su­sanna Fournier Di­rected by Le­ora Morris Star­ring Su­sanna Fournier, Aviva Ar­mour-Ostroff, Chala Hunter and Danny Ghan­tous Com­pany: Par­a­digm Pro­duc­tions ★★★

‘Uthrilling Play­wright nfore­seen es”: ei­ther to hear two Su­sanna be in words a cir­cum­stanc- theatre. ter­ri­ble Fournier that can or got night Thurs­day. up of to The speak Philoso­pher’s them on open­ing Wife on

Em­pire Fournier Tril­ogy started of writ­ing plays eight her years New ago, Chap­ter got one grants of the from cov­eted the Canada Coun­cil to pro­duce it dur­ing the sesqui­cen­ten­nial, and has been work­ing ever since to in­de­pen­dently pro­duce them.

Then, five days be­fore the open­ing of this first chap­ter, Fournier lost one of her four ac­tors, Con­rad Coates, “due to un­fore­seen cir­cum­stances,” she told us.

The good news was this: Fournier, an ac­tor as well as a writer, was go­ing to step into the role of the philoso­pher her­self. The cos- tume for a mid­dle-aged, 200pound, 6-foot-2 man had been quickly re­designed to ac­com­mo­date a younger, shorter, smaller woman.

“What is a man?” Fournier asked – and then, af­ter cau­tion­ing that di­rec­tor Le­ora Morris was in the au­di­ence with a script and that she might have to call for lines, we were off to the races.

The Philoso­pher’s Wife takes place in a feu­dal past that could also be the present. The philoso­pher, a rich land-own­ing athe­ist whose name we never learn, has called in a dog trainer named Tereza (Aviva Ar­mour-Ostroff) and her brother Thomas (Danny Ghan­tous) to deal with a wild an­i­mal on his es­tate. The twist is that it’s not a ca­nine he needs tamed, but his young, com­moner wife (Chala Hunter) – whom he has had chained up since she be­gan snarling and bit­ing ev­ery­one af­ter a pair of trau­matic births.

While Tereza at­tempts to adapt her skills and be­come the house­hold wife whis­perer, the philoso­pher takes an in­ter­est in sickly Thomas who, like his sis­ter, is also a com­moner and prac­tises an il­le­gal re­li­gion.

Fournier con­trasts their two par­al­lel ed­u­ca­tions. Tereza’s lessons are de­liv­ered to the wife through phys­i­cal ac­tions and tone of voice; the philoso­pher’s lessons with Thomas are as well, though he be­lieves in the words and rea­son, and doesn’t quite un- der­stand the un­spo­ken ways in which he wields power.

Like other cur­rent writ­ers, Fournier seems to be re­con­sid­er­ing En­light­en­ment val­ues at a time when the prom­ise of the in­ter­net to con­nect peo­ple rather than di­vide them has cur­dled – and progress seems to be hurtling us to­ward ir­re­versible global warm­ing.

The philoso­pher is ex­cited to use the new tech­nol­ogy of the print­ing press to spread his ideas about athe­ism and in­di­vid­u­al­ism, and cel­e­brates the com­ing era of free thought and free de­bate. “These ma­chines will set us free,” he says.

As the wife is re­civ­i­lized, how­ever, her lin­ger­ing an­i­mal na­ture seems to al­low her to see as­pects of the fu­ture that her hus­band can­not – and we, along with her, hear the sounds of com­ing in­dus­trial and mil­i­tary de­struc­tion in Christo­pher Ross-Ewart’s un­set­tling sound de­sign.

The Philoso­pher’s Wife’s fresh­est scenes are those be­tween Tereza and the wife. Ar­mour-Ostroff is an ac­tress who projects power in un­usual ways, while Hunter plays her en­fant sau­vage with a mix of fe­roc­ity and cu­rios­ity. These are lay­ered char­ac­ters per­form­ing roles within roles – and the dy­namic be­tween the two women is fas­ci­nat­ing and staged in a grip­ping man­ner by Morris in the round.

Af­ter a strong first act, howev- er, Fournier’s char­ac­ters start to feel a lit­tle too much like mouth­pieces or representatives of cer­tain po­si­tions and ideas as a cou­ple of strands of the plot move in overly sig­nalled di­rec­tions.

In a way, how­ever, the play­wright sub­bing in as the philoso­pher on stage was, rather than a prob­lem, a frank meta-the­atri­cal re­minder that this fic­tional world – as all do – sprang from a par­tic­u­lar mind and body try­ing to rid­dle out the world we live in.

It’s as fun as if we got to see Hen­rik Ib­sen step into the role of Hedda Gabler – a play this one is of­ten in con­ver­sa­tion with, given its way­ward wife and in­tel­lec­tual hus­band with a man­u­script about the fu­ture. (You might also de­tect hints of Howard Barker or Caryl Churchill in the writ­ing.)

Chron­i­cling 500 years in an imag­ined em­pire, Fournier’s tril­ogy is an am­bi­tious un­der­tak­ing for her in­die-theatre com­pany Par­a­digm Pro­duc­tions. The Scav­enger’s Daugh­ter, the sec­ond chap­ter, plays at Bud­dies in Bad Times in Jan­uary; Four Sis­ters, the fi­nal in­stall­ment, will be pro­duced in as­so­ci­a­tion with Lu­mi­nato in June.

The Philoso­pher’s Wife whets the ap­petite for the other cour­ses – and, as en­ter­tain­ing as they turned out to be in this case, here’s hop­ing for no more un­fore­seen cir­cum­stances. The Philoso­pher’s Wife runs at Aki Stu­dio to Dec. 16

HALEY GAR­NETT

The Philoso­pher’s Wife, part of an am­bi­tious pro­ject from Su­sanna Fournier, lost an ac­tor just days be­fore its open­ing.

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