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Theatre Glendon Shines with Carole Fréchette’s Award-Winning Play


Theatre Glendon gave five French-language performances of Quebec playwright Carole Fréchette’s award winning play, Les quatre morts de Marie from March 17th to March 21st. First produced in 1995 and garnering a Governor-General’s Award, it also received a Chalmers Award in 1998, when it was translated into English with the title The Four Lives of Marie, receiving its first production in translation in Toronto.

“Les quatres morts de Marie provides a complex structure that defies the notion of fixed subjectivity”, says Glendon professor emeritus of English and Drama Studies Robert Wallace. “Marie is at least four women in one, capable of living multiple and conflicting narratives. Her contradictions make her more than intricate and intriguing; they mark her as believable and beguiling - a character who is greater than the sum of her parts. We are all capable of living more than one life, and of playing many roles. Carole uses this idea to create a highly theatrical play in which she celebrates the variety and scope of her central character, even as she allows her to question and analyze her actions.”

Young Marie and her mother

Wallace first met Fréchette in 1987, when they served together on Jeu, a Quebec journal about theatre. “At the time, she was making the transition from actor to playwright […] and she was alive with questions and insights about plays and playwrights - which brought an immediacy and energy to our conversations that I will always remember. Her plays are informed by an understanding of theatre from the inside. Having worked as an actress, she knows what actors need to develop a riveting character, and what directors can use to expand upon their performances.”

Right: The 11 and a half-year-old Marie polishing her new shoes

The Glendon production succeeded in convincing the audience that they were watching the transformation of a real person through various stages of her life, from the 11 ½ -year-old Marie, who thinks she will never die and wants to walk to Tierra del Fuego in her new shoes, to the rebellious young adult who morphs into the professional sleeper - undergoing tests while she sleeps. This grown-up Marie creates an imaginary world, because the real one is too mundane, too confining. The overriding theme of the play is loneliness, non-communication and the loss of illusions.

“We were fortunate to have received financial support for this Glendon production from the special funds set aside for York University’s 50th-anniversary celebrations”, says Guillaume Bernardi, coordinator of Glendon’s Drama Studies program. “As a result, we were able to hire two professionals, a director and a set designer, to work with the program’s students.”

Right: Carole Fréchette reads from her work

The results were highly effective through the minimalist stage sets and varied costumes designed by Lindsay C. Walker, and the sophisticated direction of Rose Plotek, a graduate of the National Theatre School’s directing department, who opted for a runway-like staging surrounded by the audience. The viewers’ attention was directed at times on the runway split by a gulley, at other times on the bare walls or each other. The lighting, created by Glendon new media technologist Duncan Appleton “[…] allowed the director to stage each of the play's four segments in a style that fit the different qualities that Marie displayed in each of her incarnations”, says Wallace. “The actors who played the Maries were especially strong and, together, created a multi-dimensional subject notable for the startling inconsistencies that accompanied her striking changes in appearance.”

Left: "My name is Marie. I beg you, look at me... "

The March 19th performance welcomed the playwright herself in a pre-theatre chat with the title A conversation with playwright Carole Fréchette: The author's career, between the whisperings of the self and the noise of the world, hosted by Bernardi. It was Fréchette’s first visit to Glendon and she commented on the fact that playwrights are rarely invited to universities, viewed as not quite authors among authors, nor real theatre personalities. “Playwriting implies an in-between condition which suits me perfectly”, said Fréchette, referring to the title of her chat, which represents this ambiguity. “While I like having choices, I don’t like having to choose.”

Born in Montreal, Carole Fréchette started her theatre career as an actor, after graduating from the National Theatre School of Canada. She joined the feminist group Théâtre des Cuisines, which functioned until 1981 and focused on women’s concerns, such as child-raising, abortion rights and domestic burdens. They worked in an unplanned, collective format and created with immense fervour and conviction. “All of this ended when the great social movements lost steam”, says Fréchette, “resulting in an ideological and artistic impasse.” The collective presentations became too limiting. She also realized that she wanted to express herself and the world around her on a broader base than feminism alone. “I wanted to speak as ‘I’ rather than ‘we’, but more than that, I wanted to live in the world [as it is], rather than change it.”

Right: Marie, the professional sleeper

Fréchette launched her playwriting career in 1989 with Baby Blues, a play about a young mother who is trying to define her roles and abilities as mother, daughter, sister, wife and career woman, through the fog of 40 sleepless nights, since the birth of her child. For Fréchette, this was a transitional play between the Théâtre des Cuisines and her future goals, during which she became the solitary, intuitive playwright she now considers herself to be. “It was a necessary step and there was a great deal of autobiographic content, but the real plunge [into playwriting] was Les quatre morts de Marie. This is where the ‘I ‘ appears in full force, right from the first words that Marie speaks: Je m’apelle Marie; je vous prie, regardez-moi (My name is Marie, I beg you, look at me). This was my birth as an author.”

Left: Professor Robert Wallace with Carole Fréchette

The four Maries were foundational for Fréchette. Through writing this play she found her voice and an immense freedom, a voyage of self-discovery and the courage to quit her job at the Canada Council in order to become a full-time playwright. She wrote five plays within four years with enormous creative range. Her satirical play, Seven Days in the Life of Simon Labrosse – the story of an unemployed worker who creates a career out of making people feel real by watching them for a fee - was published in the same year (1999) as La Peau d’Élisa, followed by several short pieces focusing on topics as diverse as the suffering of the Lebanese population during the country’s civil war, and the loneliness of people who are unable to communicate with others. She has also created her own versions of favourite literary themes, such as Jean et Béatrice (which harks back to The Thousand and One Nights) and her most recent work, La petite pièce interdite de Barbebleu (Bluebeard’s Forbidden Little Room). She has written novels for adolescents and completed two theatrical translations. In all of Fréchette’s work, that special voice reveals the knowledge of self and of human nature in general, viewed with a quirky sense of humour and love of the bizarre, at the same time viewed with a loving eye towards the less fortunate and humanity at large.

The cast takes a bow

Article submitted by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny

Published on March 31, 2009