Blood & fire as women navigate a beautiful, untamed new world in the bold, darkly funny Deceitful Above All Things

Genevieve Adam & John Fitzgerald Jay: photo by John Gundy

The show must go on. Storefront Theatre’s partnership with the Favour the Brave Collective to present Genevieve Adam’s SummerWorks 2015 hit Deceitful Above All Things shifted venues to the Factory Theatre Studio after Storefront’s space closed earlier this year.

As you sit in the Studio’s adjacent lounge, you can hear birds and a strange, otherworldly music. Like the chiming of celestial orbs. Entering the theatre, the ceiling is covered with tree branches, reaching downwards—and the floor is the colour of blood spreading over snow. Two benches on stage and the audience is mirrored on either side of the playing space. Combined with the sounds, the setting is eerie and strangely calming at the same time.

Inspired by the little known story of Les Filles du Roi (King’s Daughters), and directed by Tanya Rintoul, Deceitful Above All Things takes us on the journey of two young French women as they cross an ocean to transplant their lives to New France (eventually Quebec) in 1667.

Meeting on the voyage, coquettish aristocrat Anne (Genevieve Adam) and the pious Marguerite (Imogen Grace) become close friends when Marguerite comes to Anne’s aid on board. Once arrived, Marguerite joins her at a settlement near Trois Rivières to serve in Anne’s new home, which she shares with her husband, tobacco farmer Amable (Brian Bisson). There Marguerite finds romance when a handsome half First Nations, half French coureur de bois, Toussaint (Garret C. Smith) saves her from a bear.

This attachment is much to the dismay of Mme. Etienne (Madeleine Donohue), settlement den mother and matchmaker; she organizes and watches over the newly arrived women and arranges domestic partnerships—all for the glory of France and to populate the colony. Also relatively new to the settlement is Father François (John Fitzgerald Jay), a Jesuit priest who lives at the nearby Mission. And befriending Marguerite is Catherine (Joelle Peters), a young First Nations woman who was orphaned as a child and raised by the “black robes” at the Mission.

The storytelling weaves past and present, where we learn how the playful, intimate relationship between Anne and Father François turned passionate in France; the two reunited when he pays a visit to Amable’s home. Both Anne and Marguerite are pregnant, and Toussaint has travelled north, following the desire of his soul even more so than the work. Marguerite has adapted well to this wild new world, with the help of Toussaint and Catherine. Less of a pioneer at heart, Anne toys with two lovers like a careless child who goes where her desire takes her—and may find her true passion too late. Ever present is the threat of attack from an Iroquois war party, as men band together to take back the land that was taken from them by force by other men. This is a harsh, at times unforgiving, and also fertile and beautiful new world—and its inhabitants must adapt in order to survive.

Compelling performances from the cast with these conflicted, passionate characters. As Anne, Adam is fiery, seductive and irreverent; Anne’s aristocratic cockiness is subdued somewhat in the wilds of a burgeoning Quebec colony, but her passion still burns hot. Polar opposite, yet complementary to Anne, is Grace’s quiet, introspective Marguerite; deeply loyal and kind, there’s a fierce heart underneath—that is her source of strength and resourcefulness.

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Garret C. Smith & Imogen Grace: photo by John Gundy

Jay brings a great sense of conflict to the learned, forward-thinking Father François; a devout and spiritual man, his passions get away from him with Anne—making for a tortured soul that longs for absolution and redemption. Smith’s lovely layered performance as Toussaint gives us a man both spiritually and culturally conflicted; called “half-breed,” he doesn’t really belong anywhere and goes where his bear spirit calls him. But now, with Marguerite and the baby, he may have finally found a home.

Peters brings a nice sense of calm watchfulness to the enigmatic Catherine, at times unsettlingly so; a woman of few words, like Toussaint, spiteful rumours about her family follow her—and she must act as her spirit dictates. Donohue gives a sharply honed performance as the tight, proper Mme. Etienne; and Bisson gives Amable a strong and simple, but affable, dignity.

Deceitful Above All Things tells us a story of the early days of what would eventually become the province of Quebec, Canada—with some seldom seen perspectives of women and First Nations people. It’s a timely story, with Canada’s 150th birthday being celebrated this year.

The production also features beautiful work from the design team to create this hauntingly beautiful, dangerously harsh world: Nancy Anne Perrin (set), Logan Cracknell (lighting), Adriana Bogaard (costume) and Deanna Choi (sound).

Blood and fire as women navigate a beautiful, untamed new world in the bold, darkly funny Deceitful Above All Things.

Deceitful Above All Things continues in the Factory Theatre Studio until Feb 26. Find ticket info and purchase advance tix here.

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Toronto Fringe: Biting social & immigration satire in sharp, startling, physical Silk Bath

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The Silk Bath Collective gives us a scathing, darkly funny and deeply moving send-up of western society and its biases toward Asian immigrants in Silk Bath. Co-written by director Aaron Jan, producer Gloria Mok and performer Bessie Cheng, the show is currently running in the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace during Toronto Fringe.

Set as a bizarre reality TV show where contestants are held in cells, new immigrants compete for social acceptance in their new country through a series of physical and verbal tests, where they gain points for giving the correct Western response and dominating in martial arts bouts. The dialogue is delivered in English, Cantonese and Mandarin, with projected surtitles.

When we first enter the theatre, we see three contestants already onstage, each seated on a mat with a metal bucket. Clementine (Dorcas Chiu), who careful tends her clementine tree; Mutt (En Lai Mah) looks after his sore knee; and the Old Lady (Amanda Zhou) sits up centre, lost in her thoughts as she wrings out a tea towel. A new arrival appears as the action commences: New Girl (Bessie Cheng) wide-eyed and eager to learn. We soon learn that each has an agenda of his/her own in addition to winning the prize.

Lovely work from the cast in this physical and emotional piece. Chiu gives Clementine a strong but wary nurturing quality, combined with a sense of natural leadership; seeking to make alliances, her way is to band together to find a way out. As Mutt, Mah gives us a man of masks; although Mah harbours a bitter and cynical attitude, he knows how to play the game and give the answers he knows the judges want to hear and he’s not above sabotage to gain points. Zhou brings a solitary dignity to Old Lady; a veteran contestant determined to win by ongoing analysis and stamina, she longs to be reunited with her love after a long separation. Cheng’s New Girl is a bright and feisty underdog; learning the ropes of this new and strange place, she is driven to succeed, and keeps a positive and hopeful attitude despite her confusion and nervousness. All want out of this place – and we find out how far each is willing to go in order to gain freedom.

With shouts to the design team: Aram Heydarian (set/costumes), Kevin Feliciano (projection/sound) and Logan Cracknell (lighting) for their inventive and evocative work to create this world.

Biting social and immigration satire in sharp, startling, physical Silk Bath.

Silk Bath continues at the Tarragon Mainspace, with only two more performances: today (Fri, July 8) at 4:15 p.m. and Sat, July 9 at 8:00 p.m.; highly recommended. For ticket info and advance tickets, check out the Fringe website.

p.s.: Because he’s crazy (his word, not mine), playwright/director Aaron Jan has another show in Fringe this year: Rowing, playing at the Kensington Conference Centre. I saw it in October 2015 and highly recommend it.