La petite poule d’eau (The Little Water Hen). Strong Community Theatre Adaptation of the Novel by Gabrielle Roy .

Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht

 

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


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