Elle's magic-realist touches make this story of a "headstrong" heroine soar
Adapted by Severn Thompson from the novel by Douglas Glover. Directed by Christine Brubaker. A Theatre Passe Muraille production, presented by the Firehall Arts Centre. At the Firehall Arts Centre on Thursday, February 9. Continues until February 18
Elle is a polished slice of imaginary history.
Playwright and performer Severn Thompson adapted this script from a Governor General’s Award–winning novel by Douglas Glover, based on the life of a real 16th-century Frenchwoman, Marguerite de La Rocque de Roberval, who was turfed from a French ship and marooned on an island off the coast of Atlantic Canada, where she managed to survive two winters before returning to France.
In Thompson’s play, the cause of Elle’s ejection from the ship is her lover, a tennis champion, and at the top of the play we meet the pair in flagrante delicto below deck. “I have been driven to this desperate expedient by the onset of a toothache,” she tells us as she writhes and grinds, desperate to find a satisfying position, while her seasick lover grows greener. It’s a terrifically vivid kickoff: a striking portrait of a “headstrong” woman who takes action to satisfy her appetites.
But once the heroine is sent packing, with her beloved Richard and a maid, Bastienne, her agency largely disappears. “We wait for something to happen,” she says when they first arrive on the Isle of Demons. (Skip to the next paragraph to avoid spoilers.) Richard (fancifully) builds a tennis court, then dies, followed swiftly by Bastienne. Elle discovers she is pregnant. Winter comes and brings salvation in the form of a spirit bear, and later, Itslk, an indigenous hunter who speaks French. But things happen to Elle; her headstrong nature seems to have abandoned her.
The textually dense narration of this passive heroine makes the story drag at times, but the language is beautiful and Elle’s observations are often wry. “It occurs to me he will eat a lot of salt fish,” she notes when she realizes that her lover will be joining her as a castaway.
Thompson is a riveting performer with a rich voice and big emotional range, and director Christine Brubaker’s minimalist approach to the staging offers many pleasures. In Jennifer Goodman’s set, a structure of bent bars looms at the back of the stage, and a single piece of cloth becomes a sail, a hut, a fire, a bear cub, and so much more. Lyon Smith’s spare, otherworldly music is performed live by Jonathan Fisher, who also plays Itslk. And Goodman’s textured lighting enhances the magic-realist qualities of Elle’s story.
For its exquisite production values and its playful approach to history, Elle is well worth seeing.