Martha Irving as the Post Mistress. Photo: Jay Kopinski
The (Post) Mistress, playing at the 1000 Islands Playhouse in Gananoque, is clearly a culturally hybrid stage event that slowly works itself out through moments of story- telling, of singing, of music, of striking lighting effects (thanks to Paul A. Del Motte). Adapted from a Cabaret style that Highway has already produced in other one woman musical shows (The incredible adventures of Mary Jane Mosquito, and Rose) this one suffers from the inadequacies of the lone actress, Martha Irving who is not quite able to sustain the extraordindary and rapid changes in music and spoken word styles. To work well, this show needs a much stronger and more transformative dramatic presence.
As it was, the show was very uneven, with the first part of the evening slowing down at times to near boredom, except for several beautiful lyrical numbers that suited Martha Irving’s bell-like voice perfectly. It did pick up during the second part of the evening with more energy and an interesting twist in the story that brought it all together in a very stirring way. Much of that was due to Piano player Holly Arsenault who adapted the music and local musician Katie Legere who plays a lovely sax as well as other instruments. Too bad they didn’t fore ground the music even more. It is clear that Highway has also infused this Cabaret form with a lot of Native cultural references as well as Franco Ontarian and European French references which make extreme demands on the vocal performance.
This Cabaret presents Mme Marie-Louise Faucon (is this a sly reference to Marie-Hélène Falcon, director the Festival TransAmerique in Montreal?) , a curious post mistress who has lived her whole life within a few square miles so now, she travels the world, vicariously by reading everyone else’s mail, as Mistress of the local post office. She is not nasty, she is just interested in all these people and she feels she shares their heartbreaks, their happiness and all their experiences because their lives could also be hers. They are in fact all connected through love. Each letter becomes the source of a story that she sings and each song takes us into a new country, a new experience a new human surrounding where her own life melts into these lives. If one thinks of Highway’s theatrical past and his cultural origins, it is easy to see that Mme Faucon changes personality, changes shape, changes temperament with each postal encounter. She is not just acting, she is going through some constantly shifting state of being, like the legendary Nanabush, who magically recreates her own cycle of life through her encounters with these people who write the letters. Even those who are dying have a special place in her world where the dead and the living interact with great ease. The Cree vision of the world leaves a strong stamp on this play, that presupposes a vast even mystical connection among all creatures in the universe.
What did not work very well were the more energetic moments of musical performance that seemed trapped in that straight gray suit worn by Mme Faucon. She did not project nearly enough sauciness in her racy stories, there was nothing “hot” about her tales of hot lovers and love crazed men. (The sexy Brazilian Samba sung in Cree was one of the high points of the how because of the mixture of rhythms and language that created a most exciting effect) but Martha Irving, as an actress and a singer, did not make the event bubble with vulgarity or sexiness or high emotion, It was always a bit sweet and bland in spite of everything. Those naughty numbers, those forbidden relationships,and much of the gutsy prose and lyrics appeared to be beyond her. I’m not sure director Andrew Lamb could have changed much either. Nor was she able to feel her way through the Franco Ontarian folk rhythms, the various story telling styles and those songs inherited from the French popular poetic ballads from the Cafés of Paris of the 1960s (when the performance takes place) whose rhythms influenced Highway in very clear terms. The music was very good but somehow the singer did not make most of it come to life.
What she did capture beautifully were the hymns, the sweet, lyrical love songs, and the lovely song about the constellations, sung by a little boy whose father is a violent drunk in prison. He writes to his father about the little Bear coming down from the constellation to tell him that his father was doing well. She was able to put that across quite beautifully because she has a sweet vibrant voice that touches the high notes perfectly. As well, the song that represented her wild passion for her second husband Roland Faucon , was also a strong moment in the show, especially coming as it did near the end of the evening.
It is too bad that the first half of the evening left us with such a negative impression because it eventualy does come together and it leaves you with a warm and wondrous feeling of peace and good will, even though the show is not nearly what it might have been with a more sizzling temperment on stage.
The (Post)Mistress plays at the 1000 Islands playhouse in Gananoque until September 14.
For Tickets and infor call 1-866-382-7020 / 1-613-382-7020