This adaptation for the stage by Irène Mahé and Claude Dorge, from the novel by Gabrielle Roy, was first performed by the Circle Molière in Saint Boniface in 1992. It was then mounted at the Théâtre du Nouvel Ontario in Sudbury. The story of the poor Tousignant family living on an isolated island on the Petite Poule d’Eau River takes place in 1937. Gabrielle Roy who then went on to write The Tin Flute (Bonheur d’occasion) became one of the important Francophone writers of her era. Here, her novel has captured many apsects of the life of the French Canadians living in the Manitoba wilderness and it is clear that this stage version has retained much of the legendary perhaps even stereotypical quality of that life.
This production by the Theatre de l’Ile is the first time the show has ever been done in the Ottawa/Gatineau area and yet all francophone school children have read the endearing story about Maman Tousignant (who regularly leaves for the mainland to “buy a baby”, much to the delight of her other children) and who is finally fed up with the fact that her children have no schooling. She writes to the Department of Education asking for help and soon receives a letter – in English- telling them they will be getting school supplies, and school teachers during the months when the weather permits. Transportation in the area depends on the time of year because the winters are too harsh and the teachers will have to leave when the snow comes. They are all delighted and a new life is about to begin in the Tousignant household.
The family sets about preparing the classroom, preparing the living quarters for the “institutrice”, preparing the children for the discipline they will have to respect and wondering how this great adventure will work out.
Most of the play is about the arrival of three different school teachers who each come for one season only and about the way each of them adapts to the special life of this family. We see the way they react to the poverty and the isolation of this tiny family unit. We also see the way each of the teachers impacts on the children and on the parents. The whole experience is rich in human moments with excellent musical accompaniment that adds much to the atmosphere .
Nervous and sceptical at the beginning, even suspicious of this learning, Luzina and Hippolyte come to realize that the future of their children depends upon learning and at the end, we see Luzina sitting down with her youngest child, helping him prepare for his lessons, very grateful for this wonderful gift that they have received.
It might seem a bit schmaltzy but it isn’t really because most of the time, the good feelings are not overdone, and through it all, there runs a thread of humour that prevents us from becoming too close to their lives. Still, what we see is extremely engaging and the actors do a fine job in a play which is all about amusing situations and much less about psychological depth.
The role of the church is also an important part of the family life and the scene where Father Joseph-Marie takes confession in the living room took a turn for the near comic that was essentially very serious, when he not so discretely , intervenes in the sex life of the Tousignant parents . Mme Tousignant admits she really doesn’t want any more children but it is clear that in a situation where contraception is impossible, there is not much she can do about it. The Priest feels it’s up to him to give Hippolyte a lesson in abstinence! Some nervous giggles in the audience suggested that the situation was a familiar one and not only limited to the on stage family!!
As usual, the community productions at the Theatre de l’ile are extremely well done and director Magali Lemèle has projected a family atmosphere that is playful, and charming. One felt that the four children who obviously had no or very little stage experience, were just being themselves and the naturalism of the staging transformed the natural nervousness and timidity of the young ones into believable acting. Even the neighbours who appear for the evening of dancing also appeared to be the folks next door who were just being themselves. The play allowed for this kind of stage presence which benefitted everyone and thus , all the type casting worked very well.
Manon Lafrenière who played Luzina was obviously a true actor . She bustled about keeping her little family on track, organizing their lives with great optimism and unbounded energy. She was quite spirited, and charming. One could say the same for Michel Jetté as Hippolyte the father who really was impressive with his calm and enormous inner strength, a strength that made it felt at those moments when certain individuals annoyed him but he was still able to suppress his anger with great dignity. I found the character of the father, as performed by Michel Jetté, more and more intriguing as the play evolved , thanks to the actor who transformed the enigmatic Hippolyte into more of a steadfast patriarchal figure than we might have expected since Luzina was the one who apparently had all the energy. They did however, complement each other beautifully.
Each of the three school teachers was a caricature. They all imposed their own acting style on an essentially naturalistic play and at times their mannerisms and emotional reactions seemed a tad overdone. Chloé Tremblay, as Mlle Côté, la maitresse that they all loved, was a perfectly prim, proper glove wearing girl from the city who felt at home immediately. Her function was to tell the children about the history of their own francophone identity within the province and to encourage them to be proud of their heritage. On the other hand, Monique Brunel as Miss O’Rorke, the haughty Irish lady who came storming into the play as the conqueror, putting the francophone children in their place and insisting on English as the only language, was less sucessful. The irony being of course that Irish Catholics were just as colonized by the British as the French Canadians were (no doubt playwright Brian Friel’s work is not too well known in Quebec). Monique Brunel’s portrayal was overdone and would have made a stronger impact if she had toned it down a bit and varied the style of her nasty remarks. As it was, the tantrums of this “lady” horrified by the poor living conditions of the household, were so overacted that they soon lost their effectiveness . Of course it was all a question of interpretation and perhaps director Magali Lemèle intended to emphasize the ridiculousness of her character and nothing more. However, it did not work and I felt that she could have obtained a lot more mileage with this character who incarnated all the wicked foreign Anglophones totally lacking in sympathy and understanding for the “other” culture, but who was herself from a culture that had also suffered greatly at the hands of the British.
As for M. Dubreuil, played by Yves Bergeras, he appeared to be slightly under the weather and wobbly most of the evening but that added to his excentric pedagogy which eventually seduced them all. The hunter who rushed out to bag an animal as soon as the weather was good, he would also sit there for hours and hours telling them the most exciting stories and firing their imaginations with tales of all knds, giving them a real education that would serve them in their future life he said. Thus, in spite of their short comings, the three “instituteurs” all brought something important into to the lives of this family..the outside world finally moved into this closed life and the results were very moving, as we see at the end of the play.
Julie Giroux’ set appeared to be a bit cluttered. It was difficult to put the house and the school room together on that small stage of the Theatre de l’ile. The set did suggest the walls of the log cabin from outside the building which was a good touch but it was the Schoolroom that worked particularly well, especiallyt the way they had set up the tables at near right angles so we could see all the action while everyone seemed to be writing bits on the blackboard covering the walls.
On opening night there were some slow moments as the chorus of children, transformed into actors as well as narrators , sometimes didn’t quite pick up the pace at the proper moments but I am sure that will become a lot smoother as the run continues.
The language is very rural, the general atmosphere is playful. We see how maman Tousignant rules the roost in this apparently matriarchal society where papa still has a strong traditional role to play outside the home and they all assume their responsibilities with great dignity.
I would say this is an exceptionally good a play for young people . It gives them a sense of Francophone history in Manitoba and the way education became central to the lives of these children, determining the way they saw the world and helping them define their futures in Canada.
Le theatre La Catapulte (La Nouvelle Scène,) now offers English subtitles on Thursday evenings. I think it would be a good idea if the Théâtre de l’Ile tried to initiate the same thing. I am certain that English speaking school children would love this play and it would definitely prove to be a very positive learning experience for them all. As it is, you have to understand French very well to follow the dialogue that rattles on at a good clip.
La Petite Poule d’Eau by Irène Mahé et Claude Dorge, plays until June 16 at the Théâtre de l’ile. Call the theatre for tickets : 819-595-7455.
La petite poule d’eau
Théâtre de l’ile, Gatineau
La petite poule d’eau (The Little Water Hen), based on the novel by Gabrielle Roy
Adapted for the stage by Magali Lemèle and Claude Dorge
Directed by Magali Lemèle
Set design Julie Giroux
Lighting and sound Mathieu Charette
Costumes Mylène Ménard
Props Marie-Pierre Proulx
A production of the Théâtre de l’ile, Community Theatre