Famous tales as told by
the women involved
Her Side of the Story presents female takes on four plays
By Byron Toben
“Sweet are the uses of adversity”, opined one William Shakespeare.
A recent example was the fine quartet of plays arranged by IMAGO Theatre. Faced by funding cuts (isn’t everybody?), this established and respected group opted to present dramatic readings.
Under the umbrella of Her Side of The Story audiences were invited to revision – and resist – the versions told by males, but rather as the females involved would have done.
Like Scapegoat Carnivale’s version of Sophocles’ Oedipus last month, a good script read by fine actors well directed can satisfy even without fancy stage props and sets.
I managed to catch three of the four shows.
The Last Wife
The Last Wife by Kate Hennig refers to Catherine Parr, the sixth and last wife of Henry VIII. Of the first five, two were annulled, one died in childbirth, and two were executed by order of Henry (Kings could do that in those days), literally losing their heads.
My vision of Charles Laughton as Henry in the 1933 movie has now been replaced by that of Quincy Armorer as the volatile monarch. He was balanced by a subtle performance by Amanda Kellock as Catherine Parr. Mike Payette filled in well as Thomas Seymour, advisor to the king and secret lover to Ms. Parr. Kathleen Stavert as Mary, daughter to Queen One, and Tenisha Collins as Elizabeth, daughter to Queen Two, were joined by Gabriel Maharjan as Edward, the one son born to Henry.
Catherine, charged with educating and bringing up pre-teen Edward, as well as looking after the two half-sisters, has her hands full in avoiding decapitation herself while not losing her streak of independence and purpose.
At one point, Henry jokes about three of his wives having been named Catherine and is there no imagination in the kingdom? Fine for him to say, me thought, in a line of eight Henrys past and six Georges to come.
Fine direction by Tamara Brown.
The Penelopied by Margaret Atwood re-examines Homer’s Odyssey wherein Odysseys (Ulysses in later Latin) takes ten years to get home from Troy after fighting there for ten years. The ever faithful and patient wife, Penelope (Dina Aziz) has to fend off 108 suitors who believe he must have died after so long. This is apparently a Quebec premiere for the 2006 script where Penelope has been played elsewhere by Megan Fellows of Anne of Green Gables fame.
Here, Penelope’s twelve serving Maids are enacted by six other ladies, who also double at times. Leni Parker stands out as the Nurse who has weaned the infant Odysses and now his son Telemachus (Katherine Turnbull). Tension grows between the two ladies as the lad looks upon the wet nurse as his mommy.
Athena Kaitlin Trinh doubles as the missing man himself, returning just in time to kill the suitors and reclaim his chaste wife. He is recognised despite his beggar disguise by the nurse because of his short legs. And you know what they say about short legs, jokes someone in the cast (written well before the Trump-Rubio argument).
Alex Petrachuck doubles as the beauteous Helen of Troy, cousin by the way, of Penelope. They are portrayed as being mutually jealous of each other. Stephanie Buxton is convincing as Penelope’s mother, a demi-goddess Nereid (sea or river nymph), as was Achilles’ mom – but I digress.
Shout out to actor Gitanjali Jain, who devised several song passages for the chorus, as she had done for the Repercussion Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park presentation of Twelfth Night.
… a play is not a slavish replica of the original source. Even Euripides had different takes on the story when he had a go at it.
At the post show talk back, special guest Lynn Kozak, a McGill professor of Classics and an expert on Homer, commented that she loved the performances (smoothly directed by Jen Quinn) but hated the play, largely because nothing in Homer or other commentators suggested that there was tension between Penelope and the Nurse, nor with cousin Helen.
I hate to disagree with Ms. Kozak, who I admire, but a play is not a slavish replica of the original source. Even Euripides had different takes on the story when he had a go at it. Some felt that Helen had fled to Egypt, some to Italy to help found Rome, others, as here, back to Greece and hubby Menelaus who had instigated the whole Trojan War debacle together with his cousin Agamemnon.
Then again, I was one of the few who actually enjoyed the 2004 movie Troy, self admittedly only ‘loosely’ based on Homer’s Iliad. There, both Menelaus and Agamemnon died in battle, which would have squelched the Orestes/ Electra follow up.
What Happened After Nora Left Her Husband
G. Bernard Shaw was a great fan of Norwegian Hendrik Ibsen and his writings on The Quintessence of Ibsenism help convert Shaw from a failed novelist into the greatest playwright since Shakespeare.
One of Ibsen’s triumphs was the 1879 A Doll’s House, where Nora left her husband and children to find herself. This shocked the Victorian world of the day so much so that many theatres in Germany changed the ending.
The ending calls out for a follow up. Buried somewhere in my slush pile of Shaviana is GBS’s notation that Anna Freud (Sigmund’s daughter) had penned such a sequel, perhaps performed at a little theatre in Bloomsbury. I have been on the lookout for that script for years without success but now come along two such plays. This one, What Happened After Nora Left Her Husband, was written in 1979 by Elfrieda Jelinek of Austria. Interestingly, like Shaw, she had also won a Nobel Prize in Literature in 2004 for another work. His, in 1926, was for lifetime achievement but closely followed the success of my own favourite, Saint Joan in 1923.
Ms. Jelinek’s play, translated into English by one Tinch Minter and featuring a cast of eight directed by Cristina Cugliandro, takes Nora (Jen Viens) to a nearby industrial town where she finds work on a textile assembly line.
She quits this dead-end job but her good looks and wild abandon in dancing the Tarantella (what splits lithe Ms. Vien executes) wins her the attention of a local banker and the story takes on aspects of another Ibsen play, The Pillars of Society, where profit dominates double dealing and broken promises, trickery and blackmail surface. Nora even becomes a dominatrix for a while. Finally, with no more options available, she is driven back to her husband. All’s not well that ends not well.
In the meantime in New York, the other sequel written in 2017 entitled A Doll’s House: Part Two by Lucas Hnath of California was up for eight Tonys and won one.
Fucking A by Susan-Lori Parks was the fourth play in the IMAGO quartet.
I did not get to see it. Ms. Parks is a hot playwright of the moment. The play is based on The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, wherein Hester is forced to wear a red A on her clothes for suspected adultery. The modern version involves tattooing.
I hear that Tamara Brown was terrific in the lead role. How did she manage time and energy to both act in this one and direct The Last Wife, above, as well?
Sophie Gee directed the cast of eight.
Her Side Of The Story ended at the Centaur on November 5.
Check imagotheatre.com for future events.
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Byron Toben is the immediate past-president of the Montreal Press Club.