Saint Andrews – The Saint Andrews Community Players has chosen a dramatic comedy “Les Belles-Soeurs” for its featured production which will be presented at the W.C.O’Neill Arena Theatre Nov. 18 and 19 starting at 7:30 p.m.
This is a dramatic comedy for mature audiences, in English translation, by one of Canada’s most important playwrights, Michel Tremblay, which tells the stories of working class Montreal women who are invited to a party at the home of Germaine Lauzon (Francie Howard).
The play is set in the mid-1960s and Germaine has won a million gold star stamps. In those days, shoppers collected stamps with their groceries, glued them into books and exchanged them for household items.
Germaine invites her sisters, sister-in-law and neighbours (Les belles-soeurs) to a stamp pasting party to help her achieve her dream and 15 women gather in the cramped kitchen of her third-floor apartment.
While Germaine supervises the work party, jealousy over her bonanza soon emerges, building to a climax with the full force of repressed hopes and dreams unleashed.
What follows is an evening of comedy and tears, bitter dialogue and cursed accusations, while the stark stories of women’s lives are revealed.
When the play was first performed in Montreal in 1968, it sent shock waves through the critical and artistic communities and prompted discussions throughout the general public.
The play, which discusses the role of women, sex and abortion, was written in the slang of the Plateau “joual” and included curse words. Tremblay’s language was intentional and he sought to counter the censorship of the Catholic clergy. He chose to champion women, whose lives had been restricted by the Catholic church and the patriarchy.
Although unanimously rejected by the jury of the Dramatic Art Festival of Canada in 1966, it has since been translated into English, German, Italian, Polish, Yiddish, Scottish and 15 other languages and continues to be performed all over the world.
Director Suzanne Tisdale, who comes from Quebec and is now living in Saint Andrews, said she chose “Les Belles Soeurs” because it was a very important play in Quebec and one of the main plays which changed the way of doing theatre in the sixties.
“This is a play that talks about the oppression of the women in those days. They didn’t have any education. It is set in Montreal in a working class area.
“They are just caught in their domestic roles. The only thing they have is to gossip and play bingo. In the play we have old maids, housewives and young girls.
“The play for me continues to be relevant. It talks about repression and lack of freedom. It reminds us that women are still fighting for their rights and for equality.”
Cast member Peggy Fothergill, who plays Des-Neiges Verrette and also grew up in Quebec, said the play is set in the “Swinging Sixties” when Bob Dylan was singing about the “Times They Are A Changing” but this was not the case in Montreal.
“Working class women were still struggling under the yoke of their traditional role with husbands, fathers and their priests.”
Women were not a significant part of the political arena and mostly followed what the Catholic clergy advised them to do – remain in their traditional roles of wives and mothers.
Sexuality, dancing, drinking, going to a nightclub, wearing “provocative” clothing and practicing birth control were all considered sins.
The election of Jean Lesage’s Liberals in 1960 brought an era of change for Quebec society. The role of the Catholic church was restricted and a new prosperity for French speaking Quebecois grew.
The first woman to win a seat in the Quebec Legislature, Claire Kirkland-Casgrain, was elected in 1961. In 1964, Bill 16 was passed with improved the legal status of married women including the power to enter into contracts without their husbands’ consent.
Tisdale said the play, which she described as a dramatic comedy, starts out lightly but really it is a tragedy.
“There is no possibility for these women to go beyond where they are. They speak in unison and also in monologues where they talk about what they are going through in their personal life.”
Cast member Louse MacFarlane, who grew up in Quebec and plays the part of Gabrielle Jodoin, said Tisdale has a lot to bring to this community and having someone like her to direct the play was like gold.
She said there are some cast members who have taken part in past pantomime productions while others are new and there are a number of them who are French.
“We were always behind. The church held you back. You had to stay home and have kids and, if you didn’t have kids, it was a sin,” said Tisdale.
“We feel for our mums, our aunts and our grandmothers when we play the parts. Suzanne has been a tremendous help to us because we have learned so much about theatre,” added MacFarlane.
Tisdale has a master’s degree in teaching and acting and had been teaching in theatre school for more than 22 years before moving to Saint Andrews a couple of years ago.
She said the cast members were very courageous to get into this project because there have been a lot of lines to learn and it has been a lot of work.
“They have been fantastic. We have been rehearsing since the beginning of September. We have a great creative team. People are working hard and nobody is getting paid.”
Tickets, at $10 each, are available at Cockburn’s Drugstore.