'(In)complete Herstory of Women' offers unorthodox performance

Gordon Jones
Send to a friend

Send this article to a friend.

Theatre Review

When you encounter a show called "The (In)complete Herstory of Women in Newfoundland (and Labrador!)" - watch out for brackets, substitutions and exclamation marks - you are entitled to assume you are in for an unorthodox evening of theatre.

The experience starts when you walk into a theatre festooned with a miscellany of items of women's clothing pinned to clotheslines. Onstage are washtubs and scrubbing boards: women's work, from which the enlightened woman will rise up.

Sara Tilley (left) and Ruth Lawrence perform in "The (In)complete Herstory of Women in Newfoundland (and Labrador)." - Submitted photo

When you encounter a show called "The (In)complete Herstory of Women in Newfoundland (and Labrador!)" - watch out for brackets, substitutions and exclamation marks - you are entitled to assume you are in for an unorthodox evening of theatre.

The experience starts when you walk into a theatre festooned with a miscellany of items of women's clothing pinned to clotheslines. Onstage are washtubs and scrubbing boards: women's work, from which the enlightened woman will rise up.

Women's work or men's work, it is done by Susan Kent, Ruth Lawrence and Sara Tilley, a trio of face-painted clowns, performing a series of skits and sketches with song and dance - a retrospective of Newfoundland women's history, told from an irreverent, even satirical, point of view.

Traditional roles of women in outport Newfoundland are gently guyed. Milking cows, making bread, knitting and sewing are recounted and mimed, with some particularly clever business in the splitting and gutting of quilted, patchwork codfish.

Or you can be a nun. The founding of the Order of the Sisters of Presentation is lampooned with a send-up of Bishop Fleming and his two founding nuns from Ireland. From Catholic evangelisation, the script jumps back in time to antics of pirate queen Marie Cobham, farcically overplayed as a playground pirate.

But in this circus-theatre blend, overwrought acting is virtually mandatory.

Subtle style

The first sustained applause of the evening was occasioned by a jump forward into more subtle, modern-day imitation by Tilley of the vocal timbre, style and repertory of local folk-singer Anita Best - a coup that was succeeded by a faux-naif rendering of a story from Margaret Duley, the telling of which shifted gradually and neatly from send-up to pathos.

Presentation blends commedia dell'arte tradition, circus clowning and Brechtian self-consciousness as actors step out of character, breaking the theatrical illusion to argue about the material they are performing, or to discuss the making of female theatre.

Even the ostensible lighting technician (Craig Francis Power) is drawn increasingly into the action, acting as MC and announcer for a WWE-style, smack-down wrestling match between blonde-wigged Lawrence and Tilly in a muscle suit.

Orthodox representation is interspersed with skilfully executed silhouette work.

Costumes are changed on the run in full view. In good Brechtian style, captions and images are projected on a sheet above the proscenium arch.

Three versatile and spirited principals have fun shuttling between historical periods, jumping in and out of roles and in and out of character. Some very inventive and ingenious work is on view.

But the wacky and unpredictable material is too often laboured and sometimes self-indulgent. Another round of revision is needed to tighten and sharpen the script.

By the second half, the zaniness starts to wear thin. The story of the last of the Beothuks is told by a kindergarten teacher (gravelly voiced Kent) to two pupils, who enact it. Miming and clowning bring this historical episode very close to the edge of the precipice.

With Margot Davies calling Newfoundland, or with a burlesque version of "Let Me Fish off Cape St. Mary's," they are on safer ground - as they are with suffragette sketches and women's franchise, which are treated with indulgent affection.

Campy close

But, as the show is winding down, they return to the theatrical framework, where they started. And for what seems like an eternity, they play out the gothic haunting of the company and the zombie-like return of their former colleague (Lois Brown), who is intent on exacting personal and artistic revenge.

Coming in at 2 1/2 hours, including intermission, the production is already too long and too diverse. In the play's next incarnation, serious consideration might be given to eliminating or severely reducing this campy closing material. There is more than enough without it and, in any case, Brown is an experienced enough actor to make it work simply with offstage vocalisation and caption-generated intervention from beyond the grave.

Come to think of it, I have never liked the ghost in "Hamlet," either.

Written and directed by Sarah Tilley, with co-direction and co-performance by Lois Brown, "The (In)complete Herstory of Women in Newfoundland (and Labrador!)," co-produced by Resource Centre for the Arts and She Said Yes!, continues its premiere run at the Majestic Theatre until Sunday, starting at 8 p.m.

Twenty-five dollars will get you through the door and into the circus.

Organizations: Resource Centre, Majestic Theatre

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Ireland

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Thanks for voting!

Top of page

Comments

Comments