By James Karas
The (Post) Mistress has the ideal pedigree for a Canadian play. It is performed in not two but three languages. Alternatively in French and English, of course, with suitable surtitles. But partly in Cree also in all performances.
The book, music and lyrics are by Tomson Highway, a prolific writer, pianist and composer but that’s nothing in the “ideal pedigree” sweepstakes. According to the program bio, Highway “was born in a snowbank on the Manitoba/Nunavut border to a family of nomadic caribou hunters.” He was raised in two languages: Cree and Dene. He is a major contributor to the growth of native playwrights, actors and Native theatre companies across Canada.
Patricia Cano. Photo Cylla von Tiedemann
After all that his plays, novel, compositions and piano performances come as almost a letdown. Of course, they are not.
The (Post) Mistress is a musical about the largely imaginary life of Marie-Louise Painchaud, the postmistress in a small town in Northern Ontario. It is performed by the talented Patricia Cano with pianist Highway and saxophonist Marcus Ali accompanying her. Cano is Peruvian-Canadian who performs in French, English and Cree. There is more to her but all of it goes to define the Canadian ideal of a civilized multicultural society.
Director John van Burek, founder of Théâtre français de Toronto and Pleiades Theatre (the co-producers of the play), cofounder of Tarragon Theatre, teacher of theatre in French and English, translator … well, you get the idea, is the type of artist Canada dreams of.
Marie-Louise Painchaud is 49 years in the town of Lovely somewhere in Northern Ontario. She has a vivid imagination and tells us a series of stories and sings a number of songs about the people of the town and her (imaginary) life. The stories range from the hilarious to the moving with an extraordinary denouement.
Cano gives an exuberant performance. Marie-Louise is a simple, overweight woman who manages to read other people’s mail and fantasizes about a life that is in dramatic contrast to her reality.
She imagines going to Buenos Aires and having an affair. Her description of her experience reaches a climactic crescendo that leaves her gasping for air as if it were the real thing. After that imaginary affair she returns to her husband and gives herself the punning moniker “post-mistress”. The French title of the play is Zesty Gopher s’est fait écraser par un frigo (Zesty Gopher got squashed by a fridge.) Zesty is a character in Marie-Louise’s world.
Unfortunately there is a dark side to the play.
Highway on the piano and Ali on the saxophone are supposed to accompany Cano when she sings, not compete with her. They are frequently louder than her, at times making it very difficult to hear the lyrics and always playing at annoying volume. That is unacceptable.
There are some melodies that poke their heads though Highway’s jazz music but more often we hear clanged-clang, clanged-clang piano chords at unacceptable volume. Cano and the musicians are miked in a small theatre where that should be unnecessary and undesirable.
With a better balance between musicians and actor and no mikes, Cano’s passable singing would sound fine and the stories she tells more than carry the play. Even without the music and singing, the script is hilarious, the characters appealing or funny, the plot development very good and the final result would have been outstanding.
Too bad its effectiveness was seriously reduced.
The (Post) Mistress by Tomson Highway continues until November 6, 2016 at the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs 26 Berkeley Street, Toronto, Ontario. 416 534 6604.