By Michel Tremblay. Translated by Linda Gaboriau. Directed by Michael Fera. A United Players of Vancouver production. At the Jericho Arts Centre until April 24
"False notes happen to everyone," says Patricia, an opera diva sliding down the other side of greatness, in Impromptu on Nuns' Island. That "everyone" includes playwright Michel Tremblay, who has crafted some of the greatest works in the Canadian theatre canon. Unfortunately, Impromptu on Nuns' Island isn't one of them.
Unless you care passionately about recent Quebec political history, or about the differences between small theatre and big opera, there's not much to engage you in this script, which focuses on three generations of Québécois women in the arts. Patricia's mother, Estelle, and daughter, Michelle, are both successful actors based in Montreal, but Patricia, a former Quebec nationalist who had her big breakthrough not long after the 1980 referendum, has sought her fortune in Paris. "You can't be a real star in a town like Montreal," says Patricia dismissively. And even though her career has lately taken a downturn, she sniffs: "I'd rather risk my voice in the big time than in some backwater hole where they can't even tell if I'm off-key."
Patricia's contempt for her roots has alienated her from Michelle, who is fiercely proud of her own contribution to Québécois culture. This central conflict is amplified by the arrival of Estelle, who has recently been offered the part of Michelle's mother on a local TV series and is an even bigger diva than Patricia. Add to the mix Richard, Patricia's accompanist, who spends the first chunk of the play complaining to his psychologist that he's Patricia's "pet poodle" and recounting his latest humiliation at her hands. Emboldened, he decides to confront her, but is ultimately upstaged by Estelle.
This talky, talky script lacks the theatrical sizzle of Tremblay's best creations. Beyond the telling of stories and the staking of positions, not much actually happens in Nuns' Island, which no doubt has greater thematic resonance in Montreal than it does here. Maybe, just maybe, a really gifted group of interpreters could make the material engaging, but director Michael Fera and his cast aren't quite up to the challenge. As Patricia, Pamela Finlayson is haughty but overly presentational, and the character's passion for opera never comes through. Crispin Bryce's Richard is earnest, sincere-and unvaryingly bland. Wendy Podgursky fares better, aptly conveying the urgency in Michelle's youthful idealism. On opening night, Andrée Karas was an on-book stand-in for Nancy Bell as Estelle, and effectively suggested her flamboyant self-centredness.
Chris Shain's set is handsome, with the exposed-brick walls in the office of Richard's psychologist seamlessly blending into those of Patricia's apartment, which boasts a huge fleur-de-lis painted over the door. There's also a baby grand piano on-stage, but it doesn't get played. Instead it becomes an awkward symbol of the "beautiful music" that Impromptu on Nuns' Island constantly alludes to but never quite makes.