Book and lyrics by Julie McIsaac and Corey Payette. Music by Corey Payette. Directed by Corey Payette. A Fugue Theatre/Raven Theatre production, in association with Urban Ink and the Cultch. At the York Theatre on Thursday, May 17. Continues until May 27
Creating a new musical is always a risky undertaking. How about a musical that seeks to inject feminist and Indigenous perspectives into an account of Canadian history? And is trilingual? The level of ambition in Les Filles du Roi is off the charts; its overall success is a triumph.
Colonizer history romanticizes les filles, young women recruited in the mid-17th century by the government of Louis XIV to go to New France to become wives and mothers. Creators Julie McIsaac (whose maternal lineage includes a fille du roi) and Corey Payette focus their story on one of these women, Marie-Jeanne—but equally on a brother and sister from the Kanien’kéha:ka (Mohawk) territory where the French fort is situated. Jean-Baptiste reluctantly agrees to bring his sister, Kateri, on a trading mission, where they meet Marie-Jeanne shortly after her arrival. Marie-Jeanne takes a sisterly interest in Kateri and a romantic one in Jean-Baptiste; against the odds of their circumstances, the friendship persists.
Under Payette’s direction, the musical—which is spoken and sung in English, French, and Kanien’kéha—gets off to a bumpy start: in the first couple of songs, the musical elements feel like they’re competing with each other. But things begin to settle in “Prière en Marchant (Walking Prayer)”, as the whole company walks ritualistically around the stage to sinuous strings and drumbeats. The piece marks the beginning of an otherworldly mood that permeates the rest of the show; it’s followed by the first of a number of dazzling transformations, when the chorus of filles unfurl their cloaks and become French soldiers.
The play’s immersiveness owes a lot to the work of production designer Marshall McMahen, whose set and costumes create a rich sense of the worlds—settler and Indigenous—that the show moves in and through. Seamless transformations—from fort to forest to lodge—show how arbitrary and permeable are the imagined borders between them. Musical director Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa ably leads a small string ensemble; their minimalist, sometimes scratchy underscoring creates a sense of possibility and danger, along with Jeff Harrison’s evocative lighting.
There are a number of exceptional performances here. Kaitlyn Yott gives the young Kateri a precocious, assertive charm without glossing over the character’s vulnerability. As Jean-Baptiste, Raes Calvert’s gentleness and understatement are magnetic; he also gets some of the script’s best lines. When Marie-Jeanne says she’s been sent by the king to populate the New World, Jean-Baptiste replies simply, “It’s already populated.” When Chelsea Rose emerges from the chorus as the Clan Mother late in the show, her assured presence and gorgeous voice make the song “Skén:nen Gowa (Great Peace)” a highlight. And throughout, McIsaac’s beautiful singing and the luminous innocence she imparts to Marie-Jeanne are an anchor for the story.
Like Payette’s earlier musical Children of God, this collaboration with McIsaac is a work of monumental importance. Its reappraisal of some ugly history includes an abundance of beauty. Go see it.