Les Filles du Roi: a sumptuous reimagining of our history

Julie McIsaac and the chorus in Les Filles du Roi (Photo by David Cooper)

Julie McIsaac and the chorus in Les Filles du Roi (Photo by David Cooper)

Corey Payette and his collaborators are reinventing the story of Canada—in ways that respect First Nations and women. It’s thrilling.

In last year’s musical, Children of God, Payette took on the residential school system. He wrote, directed, and composed that piece, which changed the way I see the world—and I’m sure I’m not alone in that. In Les Filles du Roi, which is also a new musical, Julie McIsaac joined Payette in writing the book and lyrics. Once again, Payette composed the piece and directed it.

Les Filles du Roi features three main characters: Kateri, a young Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) woman who has been chosen to become Clan Mother; Kateri’s older brother Jean-Baptiste, who trades with the French colonists in their fort; and Marie-Jeanne, a sixteen-year-old woman who has arrived in New France as a fille du roi or nominal daughter of the king. (Between 1663 and 1673, about 800 young women immigrated to New France in a program sponsored by Louis XIV. The idea was to increase the population of the French colony. It worked.)

In Les Filles du Roi, Kateri befriends Marie-Jeanne, Marie-Jeanne falls in love with Jean-Baptiste, and all hell breaks loose. That hell includes violence against both women and the Kanien’kéha:ka.

Thanks largely to Marshall McMahen, who designed the set and costumes, Les Filles du Roilooks fantastic. Mostly, we’re in the French fort, which McMahen represents with spiked timbers and a louring crucifix but, when Marie-Jeanne ventures to Jean-Baptiste’s lodge, the transition is sensational: the dimensions of the space are grand, but the lodge is also organically textured, with strings of dried food hanging from the ceiling.

McMahen uses his costumes dramatically, too. A chorus of women drives Les Filles du Roi. Mostly, these women are dressed as demure peasants but, in a dance sequence about marriage, several of them swirl, removing their skirts to reveal leggings and to become men. Later, there’s a glorious moment in which one of the filles transforms into the Kanien’kehá:ka Clan Mother, her dress adorned with glorious beading. (The beadwork design is by Konwahonwá:wi Stacey.)

Les Filles du Roi is also musically rich. Payette’s score incorporates stirring anthems, including the title song, and moving Christian prayers. In some of the most beautiful sequences, it borrows from First Nations traditions. The four musicians—Rachel Kiyo Iswaasa, Molly MacKinnon, John Kastelic, and Rebecca Wenham—are stellar.

And Les Filles du Roi is a linguistic adventure: as we follow with the aid of surtitles, its characters slip from French to Kanien’kéha to English. It’s a concrete evocation of some of the fundamentals of our heritage as Canadians.

All of that said, parts of the storytelling are wonky. There’s a disorienting flashback, for instance, in which Marie-Jeanne is suddenly transported back to her journey to New France. And, in a more confusing set of developments, the colonists imprison Jean-Baptiste then let him go. I have almost no idea why they imprisoned him and zero idea why they let him go. How long he was jailed, where exactly he was jailed, and how he survived his imprisonment are also vague.

The plot is imbalanced. Les Filles du Roi strains to be about Kateri, but it doesn’t give her enough of a story to justify that focus. For most of the show, we watch the romance between Jean-Baptiste and Marie-Jeanne then, suddenly, towards the end of the evening, there’s an extended sequence in which Kateri struggles to accept her responsibilities within her community. That shift requires the introduction of a new character, the Clan Mother, and, even then, the nature of Kateri’s struggle and the potential consequences of her choices remain abstract and unfocused.

The course of the romance is largely predictable and the politics of the piece valorize First Nations values over colonial values in simple terms—I’m not saying those terms are invalid, just that they’re basic—so there aren’t a lot of surprises there.

Still, there’s always something to watch, something to enjoy. I loved much of movement director Patrice Bowler’s contribution, including a dizzying passage in which Kateri and Marie-Jeanne flee from the authorities in a canoe.

And the performing company is strong. Julie McIsaac plays Marie-Jeanne; I had forgotten the clear beauty of McIsaac’s soprano and the luminosity that she brings to the stage. There’s an extraordinary moment in which Marie-Jeanne is abandoned by those she loves most: McIsaac simply stands and lets it register.

Kaitlyn Yott makes a feisty, engaging Kateri: she sings well and, hopefully, during the run, she’ll find more dynamics in that singing. On opening night, she was hitting almost everything at full bore.

As Jean-Baptiste, Raes Calvert is quietly, persuasively charming.

I also want to mention Andrew Cohen, who brings nuance to the role of Clarke, a British trader who has designs on Marie-Jeanne, and Chelsea Rose, who steps out of the chorus to dazzle in an extended solo as the Clan Mother.

One of the most exciting things about Les Filles du Roi is that it’s a huge leap forward from Children of God—and the two works are certainly part of the same ambitious shift.  I’m not knocking the earlier work—its impact can’t be denied—but, artistically, Les Filles du Roi is more fully realized: the storytelling is better, the theatricality is more integrated, and the lyrics are more sophisticated.

With its many successes, Les Filles du Roi helps us to reimagine our myths in more inclusive and accurate ways. Speaking as a settler, I’m grateful for the opportunity.

LES FILLES DU ROI Book and lyrics by Corey Payette and Julie McIsaac. Composed and 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.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

Comments

  1. Camyar Chai says:

    I saw it last night and can say all the things you were hoping for, like Kateri hitting more range-was there. I loved the experience. I also think that Payette is creating a mainstream space – long overdue – for First Nations stories. I left thinking this is a Canadian Miserables meets Hamilton and we have our very own Lin Manuel Miranda in the making. I went with someone not as immersed in Theatre and he was also wowed. Bravo.

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