For my first show at this year’s Toronto Fringe, I had the pleasure of seeing the opening night of Piecing Together Pauline at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace with my good friend Lizzie Violet. The play is a historical drama about the life of 19th century opera singer Pauline Garcia Viardot, who was the younger sister of opera star Maria Malibran and the muse of novelist Ivan Turgenev. The writing team and cast feature well-known Fringe vets: co-writers Chris Coccoluzzi (who also directed) and Roxanne Deans, and a fine ensemble of actors, including Bil Antoniou, Tara Baxendale, Rob Candy, Stephen Flett, Damien Gulde, Elva Mai Hoover, Chris Irving, Alex Karolyi, Scott McCulloch, Shannon Shura, Brenda Somers, Steve Switzman, Blake Thorne and Kristen Zaza.
Piecing Together Pauline is exactly that, pieces of Pauline’s life, a story told through scenes, moments, letters and memory – and often with split or even overlapping staging, with an elderly Pauline (Hoover) stage left and younger Pauline (Zaza) stage right. From her early days as a promising young pianist to her transition to opera singer – living in the shadow of her beautiful diva sister, dubbed La Malibran, and pushed into the spotlight by her family for largely financial reasons – to her waning years as retired singer and composer, we watch as Pauline is pushed and pulled by forces both internal and external: her family name, her art, her passion.
Beyond being a biographical history drama, the play examines the nature of art, inspiration, and the role of women in the arts and culture world. Women as muse (as Pauline was to Turgenev), multitasking with a husband – a socially smart move to enter into marriage in order to have time to pursue one’s art – and the challenges of children that arrive into that marriage whether one wants them or not. All while aspiring to be a priestess – or perhaps not aspiring so much as expected to be one, the public longing for a feminine example of the divine – a shining inspiration of art. And, after all, a flesh and blood woman who falters like anyone else.
Stand-outs for me were Stephen Flett as the affable and somewhat sad Turgenev, Scott McCulloch as a playful and cheeky Chopin, Shannon Shura as the passionate La Malibran and Clara Schumann, Brenda Somers as the witty George Sand, and Blake Thorne’s older Viardot, still loving and faithful after all of Pauline’s successes and failures, artistic and personal. I especially enjoyed Pauline and Clara Schumann’s letter exchanges, in one case a pivotal scene in which we see Pauline swept up by the grandeur of socializing and performing for nobility and snubbing her friend.
The characters and the music throughout bring us into this world of art and music – and the desire to leave something important and beautiful behind when one is gone. A legacy of art and inspiration.
Piecing Togther Pauline runs until July 15 at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace. For more info, visit their site at: www.fireandair.ca