Nostalgia comes in two flavours: rosy-eyed or bitter. David Fennario’s Motherhouse (dir. Jeremy Taylor and David Fennario asst.), a play about a woman who assembles bombs in a Verdun factory during WWI, has a scoop of both. The play is warm hearted towards its narrator, Lillabit (Holly Gauthier-Frankel) a character based on Fennario’s own mother. Lillabit is tough talking, a little subversive, and full of wry observations on the Verdun world around her. The play makes no bones about its disavowal of war, (big) business, and Canada’s current government. Ultimately, Fennario’s politic overshadows the tremendous effort of the acting and production team. My sense is that those with socialist-far-left leanings will love it, and anyone slightly to the right of that will be a bit gobsmacked.
I count myself among the gobsmacked.
So many things in this play were great and so much had me seething. Things started off with much promise. The actresses (Delphine Bienvenu, Bernadette Fortin, and Stephanie McKenna) were already onstage as the audience arrived, stretching against an intriguing set that consisted of the front steps and door of a church (presumably Notre Dame des Sept Douleurs, but could have been any in Montreal). The actresses sprang into action with a rousing striker’s drum beat, a tip of the hat to the Carré Rouge. But from there, things took a turn to the left. The far left. Instead of diving into the story of Lillabit, Fennario has Gauthier-Frankel spend the next half hour narrating his reasons for writing the play: the defiant face of a woman from a photo taken in the lunch room of the British Munitions Supply Company from Verdun during WWI.
These thirty minutes were more history lesson than story. Songs and amusing reminisces of Verdun of old and snide comments about people with jobs and condos (no mention of taxes said people pay that fund the arts) didn’t go anywhere interesting. We hear the English street names, the joy of smelling the chocolate roses cooking at the candy factory. There are a few zingers about immigrant families — a description of an uncle with a mouth like a cat’s ass. Mostly, though, it’s a sentimental vision of Verdun’s poor protestant past that is set against a description of the horrific Battle of Ypres in which soldiers are told to “piss on their snot rags” to protect themselves from chlorine gas. Emphasis: war is bad, growing up poor in Verdun is good. War is bad for poor people in Verdun.
I’d just about written the whole thing off as a disjointed rant, when the production began to take shape. Lillabit gets a job working at the munitions factory. The evil bosses need to speed up production to meet the demands of the war and a contingent of French girls are brought in. Production speeds up again – those evil bosses! – and like Chekov’s rifle on the wall in the first chapter, there’s an explosion in the factory.
The explosion scene is gripping and here the production excels. The physical acting of McKenna and Bienvenu, the multi-purpose set, and even the stage lighting all come together under Gauthier-Frakel’s chilling storytelling with Fennario’s sharp humour. Bernadette Fortin fuels the fire with with heart-pounding fiddling. I was on the edge of my seat, horrified and laughing simultaneously.
Following this event, Lillabit’s workmates ask her to speak to management about the inadequate compensation received (the French girls get nearly nothing as contract workers). Needless to say, her life takes a different course and the play follows her to the present. There’s more politicizing, of course, though here it is better integrated in the narrative of Lillabit’s story.
Overall, I wanted more of Lillabit and less of the Verdun love letter combined with political commentary. I am not necessarily opposed to his messages, but I prefer the story to convey the message and not the message to be prioritized over the story. Of course, this means that I want Fennario’s play to be something it isn’t – a narrative production rather than political theatre. I suppose asking for this is like telling Jack Kerouac to write paragraphs that don’t ramble or Charles Bukowski to stop writing while drunk. Fact is, Fennario is a playwright with the anti-war stance of Kurt Vonnegut and a Michel Tremblay love for Montreal’s past. This is what he writes for – and like generations of writers from the 50s and 60s, the art form is his platform for his message.
Motherhouse is at the Centaur Theatre (453 St. François Xavier) until March 23rd. Shows Tuesday – Saturday 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.