Les Belles-soeurs: not so belles all the time

Ruby Slippers is producing Michel Tremblay's Les Belles-soeurs at the Gateway Theatre.

In Les Belles-soeurs, Germaine (France Perras) clings to the dream of material safety. (Photo by Tim Matheson)

As I was watching this production of Les Belles-soeurs, I kept trying to fill in the holes. There are a lot of them, especially in Act 1.

In Michel Tremblay’s 50-year-old play, Germaine Lauzon has just won a million trading stamps. (Stamps like these were part of an early customer-loyalty scheme: you could redeem booklets of them for prizes.) Germaine figures she has enough stamps to refurnish her run-down house and she has her eye on exotic items such as Chinese velvet paintings and ashtray lamps. But the labour involved in sticking a million stamps into booklets is daunting, so Germaine invites over a gang of her female friends and relatives, who are all at least as poor as she is, to help her out—and, perhaps, so that she can gloat.

But Germaine has underestimated the power of jealousy. Before long, her supposed friends are stealing from her, shoving stamps into their purses.

Misery drives them.

When it premiered in 1968, Les Belles-soeurs was revolutionary because it took seriously the suffering—and resilience—of working-class women. Germaine and her friends aren’t just poor; they are exploited exhausted workers trapped in a sexist Catholic culture that forbids effective birth control, divorce, and abortion.

In its time, Les Belles-soeurs was also formally revolutionary. It uses a lot of choral speech, for instance. In one of the most effective passages in the first act of this production, the characters all sit in chairs at the front of the stage. Lit ghoulishly from below by John Webber, they stamp out the rhythms of their shared speech with their feet (the choreography is by Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg) as they articulate the drudgery of their days: “It’s all the same. I’ll kill myself for my pack of morons…But at night we watch TV.”

There are other successes in Act 1. When Lucia Frangione arrives as Marie-Ange Brouillette, she is so focused and elemental in her envy that she’s like a Fury. And, in my favourite passage of Act 1, Eileen Barrett (Des-Nieges Verrette) opens the play’s heart for the first time as she describes her tentativeness—her desire for sex and fear of it—as she tries to negotiate tenderness with a door-to-door brush salesman.

There are also vast dull passages in Act 1. I attended the night after the opening and something dire was going on with France Perras’s voice. Perras plays Germaine, who is at the centre of Les Belle-soeurs. But Perras’s vocal chords were ravaged and their expressive range limited. More disappointingly, Perras is delivering a cartoonish performance—full of cliché attitudes but little discernible feeling.

And, in Act 1, Tremblay’s text is often boring. There’s a device, for instance, in which one character after another recounts a brush with some kind of contest then hits the refrain, “Do I look like someone who has ever won anything?” So we get repetition instead of development.

It’s likely that a fully Québecois production of Les Belles-soeurs would deliver a richer experience, given that both artists and audiences would have a deeper understanding of the characters’ complexities and more affection for them. In director Diane Brown’s production, however, we spend too much time in the land of simple stereotypes.

Then Pierrette arrives and Act 2 gets better. Pierrette is Germaine’s ostracized sister. Once the nuns’ favourite, she’s been working in a nightclub for 10 years so Germaine and her friends regard her as a slut.

Catholic brutalization of female sexuality becomes the clear focus of Act 2, which packs more of a wallop. Kerry Sandomirsky enjoys a pleasingly humble turn as Angéline Sauvé, an older woman who is in danger of being shunned by the group when they discover that she has set foot in a bar. Pierrette (Emilie Leclerc) and teenaged Lise (Agnes Tong) embody women of different ages who have been marooned by their society’s refusal to grant women sexual agency. And Rose (Beatrice Zeilinger) unearths the dark heart of everyday sexual humiliation. Want to see well-placed confidence in a performance? Check out Zeilinger’s use of silence.

There’s a lingering sense of emptiness in the show, though. No doubt taking her cue from Tremblay’s non-naturalistic writing, director Brown has gone surreal with her blocking. Characters stack the kitchen furniture and climb it like mountaineers. Pierrette chats with Germaine’s daughter Linda while they’re perched high atop a cupboard. But these choices either feel meaningless or obvious and they’re all distracting.

Early on, Linda asks how her mom plans to squeeze 15 women into their tiny kitchen but, in Drew Facey’s set, that kitchen is vast: you could fit in scores by adding bleachers. In the set’s monumentality, Facey may be making a statement about the scale of the social structures these women inhabit. But surely their experience of these norms is claustrophobic—even though their attempts at resistance are heroic.

LES BELLES-SOEURS By Michel Tremblay. Translated by John Van Burek and Bill Glassco. Directed by Diane Brown. A Ruby Slippers Theatre production at the Gateway Theatre on Saturday, September 29.  Continues until October 6. 



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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.

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