Michel Marc Bouchard’s latest play (masterfully translated by Linda Gaboriau) is as rich in its overt content as with its searing indictment of hypocrisy— emanating from clergy, laypersons, media and corporate leaders alike—that takes no prisoners and leaves precious little hope.
The catalyst for the action is famed actor Sarah Bernhardt’s visits to Montreal and Quebec City, which drew the vehement wrath of Archbishop Bruchési:
In our Catholic city we have no need of that literature, of those plays imported from a world where Christian marriage is mocked, where morality and shame have become mere words.
Given the systemic, increasingly uncovered horrors of Church duplicity in both child abuse and Residential Schools, the well-fed pot was most certainly calling the kettle black: “Praise the Lord, pass the double standards.”
And so Bouchard weaves his story and ugly history of this time (1905) by setting the tale largely in the Grand Seminary of Québec.
Here we meet Michaud (Ben Sanders showing remarkable range) whose adoration of The Divine (both God and Bernhardt’s monikers) sets him on a truly incredible journey from devout, submissive seminarian to champion of truth at all costs.
As the curtain rises, a bandaged Talbot (Wade Bogert-O’Brien at his best in the early scenes, only to be blindsided by the power of the script when his most important choice must be made) along with his long-suffering mother (none better than Mary Haney to portray the gritty, resigned woman who lives with the ravages of poverty daily) arrive in God’s training rooms. Having been abused for some time by a man of the cloth, Talbot literally struck back and is now rewarded for his courage by taking his vows (and being “kept” by the institution—imagine?: three square meals, comprehensive—if decidedly narrow on the literature front—education and clothes that aren’t tattered and perpetually patched) in return for lying about what actually caused the fight with the senior priest when the police arrive to investigate.
Watching over the handsome flock is Brother Casgrain who has made a sort of peace with his own demons and expects everyone else to “Go and do likewise.” Martin Happer turns in a superb performance as the conflicted man of God, artfully overseeing the metamorphosis of both Michaud and Talbot.
Akin to the awful circumstances of the Joe Fresh factory collapse in Bangladesh (2013), the scene shifts to a local footwear sweatshop where Mrs. Talbot and dozens of other women eke out a living at the whim of The Boss. Ric Reid fires on all cylinders in his portrayal of the uncaring, ever-pragmatic businessman who thinks nothing of hiring underage children (including Talbot’s brother Leo—Kyle Orzech cracking his jokes with bravura—who is destined to join a pair of young girls in a heavenly place far before their time) and then roiling when one of their body parts makes a totally inopportune appearance. Co-workers Emma (Catherine McGregor) and Thérèse (Jenny L. Wight—both women models of stoicism) reinforce the dank sense of hopelessness even as The Boss plays gleefully with his silk top hat.
With all of this extensive back-story in place, the Grand Dame of the French theatre has almost been forgotten, but as soon as Fiona Reid takes her station—champagne at the ready—Sarah Bernhardt seems reincarnated with a tenor, tone and demeanour from Reid that is a constant pleasure.
Her entourage, (Andrew Bunker, Darcy Gerhart) delightfully feed their “boss” lines which allow both Bernhardt and Bouchard to make many salient points. The actor becomes a beacon of light both for the audience (often balancing the play’s many dark moments) and especially Michaud, who not only falls under her spell but comes to the sudden realization that the pen is stronger than unyielding dogma.
From there the drama alternates between the wily theatre troupe and the chamber of indoctrination, climaxing on both fronts when Bernhardt goes purposely off script and Brother Casgrain runs out of prayers.
Throughout it all, Jackie Maxwell’s expert hand is very much in evidence, from assembling a superb cast (the utility quartet of Billy Lake, McGregor, Jonathan Tan and Wight, near-silently—Tan firing the questions during the media scrums—allow Michael Gianfrancesco’s utilitarian set transformations to move forward with the greatest of ease), keeping a generally tight rein on the proceedings (knowing when to loosen being just as important) and—most importantly—assuring that Bouchard’s work received the production it most certainly deserves: a kind of divine guidance all on its own.
Leaving the Royal George, the mind is more troubled than when the house lights initially dimmed, but without theatre such as this, how would travesties of the past ever see widespread light of day? JWR