The Philosopher’s Wife by Susanna Fournier is one of those deeply intelligent and subversive plays that would look at home being performed at Stratford’s Studio Theatre. It has just the right kind of heft and gravitas (not to mention wry humour) that would appeal to a smart and discerning audience.
The work is the first installment of The Empire Trilogy, a series of epics covering a span of 500 years that explore the effects of imperialism, both on the macro and micro scale. Whether oppressing nations, or oppressing individuals, the ramifications of imperialism are monumental, and decolonization, by necessity, is a slow and tortuous journey with no guarantee of success at the end. Presumably, during these 500 years, we will find out if a time of darkness becomes a time of enlightenment, and if imperialism morphs into democracy.
There is a Game of Thrones ethos about the play – by that I mean an epic work set in the distant past, but one that has resonancef or today. Such a setting allows the writer to both explore disturbing, even outlandish plot conceits, and present a depiction of violence and primitivism writ large. The Philosopher’s Wife takes place in a time of feudalism and absolute monarchy. The more tolerant north has become a place of refuge for their southern neighbours who are fleeing The Fervour, where warrior priests are spearheading the inquisition and religious persecution. Death is the penalty for non-believers.
The Philosopher of the title (played by Fournier herself) was once a high placed member of the court and the crown prince’s favourite teacher, but he now lives in exile, banished to his lands in the north because he is a declared atheist. The Wife (Chayla Hunter) is the illiterate but beautiful peasant girl he married hoping to have healthy strong children. Sadly, multiple horrendous pregnancies and births have left the Wife mad, and she imagines that she is a dog. Enter strong and steely Tereza (Aviva Armour-Ostroff) and her physically and emotionally challenged brother Thomas (Danny Ghantous), two refugees from the south.Tereza, a dog trainer, has been summoned by the Philosopher to help cure his wife, since no other remedy has worked thus far. The acting across the board is excellent and the characterization memorable – the patronizing Fournier, the flinty Armour-Ostroff, the fragile Ghantous, and the volatile Hunter – although the latter has to speak louder. Fournier was not meant to play the Philosopher, but stepped into the role on short notice. Nonetheless, the casting of a woman works because the softer profile is in keeping with a man of taste and refinement. I’m in favour of always having a woman play the role.
Fournier stylesherself as a feminist philosopher as well as a playwright, and The Philosopher’s Wife deals with epic themes that befit an epic landscape. Along with the all-embracing concepts of power and submission, the play touches on the impact of sex, class and gender, patriarchy and the role of women, the plight of refugees, civilization versus animal instinct, and the rights and hardship of personal freedom, to mention but a few. Director Leora Morris should be congratulated for bringing out character (both strengths and vulnerabilities) and themes, while not letting the play get bogged down in words. This is a production that allows the audience to get caught up in the action, while thinking about the implications of what is being said. Morris also understands the difficulties of directing in the round.
The production values of this play are outstanding, and deserve major recognition when it comes to Dora Awards time. Triga Creative, a.k.a. Shannon Lea Doyle/set design and Alexandra Lord/costume design have cleverly created “the Empire look” with hand-crafted furniture on a patchwork floor of tarp and wood, and clothes that are brilliantly character-specific. Kaitlin Hickey’s moody lighting perfectly matches the mood of darkness, but it is Christopher Ross-Ewart’s sound design that is first among equals. His interweaving of ominous music and shocking sound effects has a heart-stopping effect on the audience.
The Scavenger’s Daughter, the second part of the Empire Trilogy, runs at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Jan. 15 to Jan. 27, 2019 – a most eagerly anticipated production, for sure. The last play, Four Sisters, is part of the 2019 Luminato Festival. I certainly hope Stratford head honcho Antoni Cimolino has a good look at The Empire.
Paradigm Productions/The Philosopher’s Wife (Part 1 of The Empire Trilogy) by Susanna Fournier, directed by Leora Morris, Aki Studio, Daniels Spectrum, Dec. 4 to Dec. 16, 2018. Tickets available at www.empiretrilogy.com/plays.