Powerful, moving & beautifully raw storytelling in I Am Marguerite

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Daniela Pagliarello & Christopher Oszwald in I Am Marguerite – photo by Bruce Peters

In 1542, banished from a French ship by a heartless, domineering brother, Marguerite de Roberval is set afloat on a skiff towards a remote island off the north coast of Newfoundland. With her are her faithful nurse and her lover Eugene. Left with scant provisions and in fear of never seeing home or loved ones again, they land on the Isle of Demons with the prospect of perishing in the face of cold, harsh winters and predatory wildlife.

This is the story, a little-known piece of Canadian history, brought to life on stage in an hour-long, emotionally and psychologically packed play by Shirley Barrie. This is I Am Marguerite, directed by Molly Thom – and it opened to a packed house at Alumnae Theatre last night.

The storytelling is taut and compelling, shifting in and out of memory and hallucination, and honed over the past decade and after having taken on various forms – from play to opera libretto back to play again – and executed by an excellent cast. As Marguerite, Daniela Pagliarello does a remarkable job of driving the story, not to mention a lovely job of capturing the youthful passion, lust for life, curiosity and rebellious streak of the young French noblewoman. Teetering on the edge of madness, struggling with physical, emotional and mental hardship, she vacillates between a ferocious fight for survival and a desperate surrender to the memories and faces that haunt her in her loneliness. And, like Marguerite, we often find ourselves wondering if the faces are real or imagined ghosts from her past.

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Top: Chris Coculuzzi, Heli Kivilaht & Sara Price. Bottom: Daniela Pagliarello & Christopher Oszwald – photo by Bruce Peters

Joining Pagliarello is an outstanding supporting cast. As Marguerite’s ambitious, older brother Jean-François, Chris Coculuzzi gives us a strong performance of a man as driven and strong-willed as his younger sister, but with a dark, cruel edge. Proud, controlling and manipulative, he is not above using those closest to him as a means to his own ends. Heli Kivilaht is a delight as Marguerite’s former nurse and present companion Damienne, a loving, nurturing and supportive soul with an irreverent, no-nonsense sensibility. Sara Price brings layers of warmth and genuine goodness to the otherwise imperious and proper Queen of Navarre. As Marguerite’s lover Eugene, Christopher Oszwald gives us a man of quiet strength, a romantic, and a lover of music and beauty who is willing to risk it all for the woman he loves. And the love and loyalty of Eugene and Damienne’s choice to be banished with Marguerite make subsequent events all the more heartbreaking.

With big shouts to a most excellent design team. Marysia Bucholc has created a magnificent, abstract set design – the layers and multi-dimensional, almost sculptural, landscape sharp and rippling outward, with eerie, weeping trees; and props by Razie Brownstone – the rocks, bones and rustic supply trunk – dress an otherwise barren space. The characters are honed and brought to brilliant living colour with stunning period costumes by Peter DeFreitas and Toni Hanson. Angus Barlow’s evocative sound design features haunting atmospheric composition by James Langevin-Frieson (who composed theme music for Marguerite, played at the beginning and the end of the play), as well as period dance and lute music, going from dulcet to frenetic as the music mirrors the fragility of Marguerite’s mind.

I Am Marguerite is a powerful, moving and beautifully raw piece of storytelling.

I Am Marguerite runs on the Alumnae Theatre mainstage until April 25, featuring a talkback after the matinée on April 19. Advance tickets available online or at the box office an hour before curtain time (cash only).

Here’s a little teaser by way of the show trailer. Go see this.

Department of Corrections: An earlier version of this post neglected to mention that the original music included in Angus Barlow’s sound design was composed by James Langevin-Frieson. This has since been corrected.

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Chaotically insightful and darkly funny ride in Alumnae Theatre’s Escape From Happiness

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Lesley Robertson (Mary Ann), Andrea Brown (Elizabeth) and Renée Haché (Gail) – photo by Scott Gorman

“Please don’t do anything you can’t live with later.”
“I can live with a lot.”

Alumnae Theatre Company opened its 2014-15 all-Canadian season with George F. Walker’s Escape From Happiness on Friday night and I dropped by the theatre for the Sunday matinée.

Directed by Andrea Wasserman, Escape From Happiness is one of three plays in Walker’s East End Trilogy, a dark comedy of family dysfunction, set against the backdrop of crime vs. law and order. When a series of troubling events threaten the safety of her family, Nora (Heli Kivilaht) rallies her two oldest daughters, Elizabeth (Andrea Brown) and Mary Ann (Lesley Robertson), to the family home in order to discover who beat up youngest sister Gail’s (Renée Haché) husband Junior (Maxwell King). Tom, the family patriarch (David Cairns), gravely ill and mostly keeping to his room, goes unacknowledged by Nora as the husband and father of the house (she insists he’s only someone who looks like him), and cared for by Gail and Junior. A history of alcoholism, explosive anger and violence has created a huge rift in the family, and Gail is the only one willing to forgive. Add to the mix low-level criminals Rolly (Robert Skanes) and Stevie (Colin MacDonald), and diametrically opposed detectives Mike (Ryan Seeley) and Dian (Joanne Sarazen), then turn up the volume to 11 and break off the knob as these people struggle to cope with some very bizarre circumstances.

Wasserman has an excellent ensemble for this wacky and edgy journey. Kivilaht’s Nora is a lovely combination of spacey and wise, kind and sharp-edged in her eccentric observations of the world and the people around her. Brown is both hilarious and intense as the eldest daughter Elizabeth; a lawyer and family protector, and bad-ass beneath the suit – and more like her father than she’s likely willing to admit. Robertson’s Mary Ann is adorably kooky, a gentle and nurturing soul struggling to find her way in the face of some harsh realities; like Nora, an unexpected and unusual voice of truth. Haché is outspoken and suffering no fools as youngest daughter Gail, possessing of a forgiving heart and in many ways the sanest of the bunch. King brings a very likeable and child-like quality to Junior; a sweet and loyal guy, but not too bright. Cairns gives a nicely layered performance as ex-cop Tom, the deposed man of the house; well-meaning in his actions, but lacking the foresight and luck – and sense of boundaries – to carry them off.

Sarazen and Seeley do a marvelous job of playing off each other as new school vs. old school cops. Sarazen’s Dian is sharp-witted but cheerful new order cop, driven and socially aware, and obsessed with innovation, while Seeley’s Mike is an old-time veteran of the force – pragmatic, gruff, racist and prefers to go with his gut. Skanes and MacDonald are a riot as father/son crime team Rolly and Stevie – nicely mirroring the dynamic between Tom and Junior, with the fumbling older man acting as mentor to the dim-witted younger man.

Shouts to Brandon Kleiman’s set design, a neat, but worn and somewhat grimy family kitchen – including some great details via props assembled by Jackie McClelland; and to Sara Brzozowski’s costumes, which both identify and round out the characters really nicely. And to the original music by Boy Ballz, bringing some awesome hip hop and urban beats – the perfect soundtrack for this play.

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Robert Skanes (Rolly) & Heli Kivilaht (Nora) – photo by Scott Gorman

Alumnae Theatre’s production of Escape From Happiness is a chaotically insightful and darkly funny ride, featuring a kick-ass cast. Get yourselves over there to see this.

Escape From Happiness runs on the Alumnae Theatre main stage until October 11. Purchase tickets an hour before curtain time (cash only), or in advance online, by telephone at (416) 364-4170 (press 1) or by email at reservations@alumnaetheatre.com