Review: The Philosopher’s Wife only enlivened by “unforeseen circumstances”
PUBLISHED DECEMBER 7, 2018, 3 out of 4 stars
“Unforeseen circumstances”: two words that can either be terrible or thrilling to hear in a theatre.
Playwright Susanna Fournier got up to speak them on opening night of The Philosopher’s Wife on Thursday.
Fournier started writing her Empire Trilogy of plays eight years ago, got one of the coveted New Chapter grants from the Canada Council to produce it during the sesquicentennial, and has been working ever since to independently produce them.
Then, five days before the opening of this first chapter, Fournier lost one of one of her four actors, Conrad Coates, “due to unforeseen circumstances”, she told us.
The good news was this: Fournier, an actor as well as a writer, was going to step into the role of the Philosopher herself. The costume for a middle-aged, 200-pound, 6 foot 2 man had been quickly redesigned to accommodate a younger, shorter, smaller woman.
“What is a man?” Fournier asked – and then, after cautioning that director Leora Morris was in the audience with a script and that she might have to call for lines, we were off to the races.
The Philosopher’s Wife takes place in a feudal past that could also be the present. The Philosopher, a rich landowning atheist whose name we never learn, has called in a dog trainer named Tereza (Aviva Armour-Ostroff) and her brother Thomas (Danny Ghantous) to deal with a wild animal on his estate.
The twist is that it’s not a canine he needs tamed, but his young, commoner wife (Chala Hunter) – whom he has had chained up since she began snarling and biting everyone after a pair of traumatic births.
While Tereza attempts to adapt her skills and become the household wife whisperer, the Philosopher takes an interest in sickly Thomas who, like his sister, is also a commoner and practices an illegal religion.
Fournier contrasts their two parallel educations. Tereza’s lessons are delivered to the Wife through physical actions and tone of voice; the Philosopher’s lessons with Thomas are as well, though he believes in the words and reason and doesn’t quite understand the unspoken ways in which he wields power.
Like other current writers, Fournier seems to be reconsidering Enlightenment values at a time when the promise of the internet to connect people rather than divide them has curdled – and progress seems to be hurtling us toward irreversible global warming.
The Philosopher is excited to use the new technology of the printing press to spread his ideas about atheism and individualism, and celebrates the coming era of free thought and free debate. “These machines will set us free,” he says.
As the Wife is recivilized, however, her lingering animal nature seems to allow her to see aspects of the future that her husband cannot – and we, along with her, hear the sounds of coming industrial and military destruction in Christopher Ross-Ewart’s unsettling sound design.
The Philosopher’s Wife’s freshest scenes are those between Tereza and the Wife. Armour-Ostroff is an actress who projects power in unusual ways, while Hunter plays her enfant sauvage with a mix of ferocity and curiosity. These are layered characters performing roles within roles – and the dynamic between the two women is fascinating and staged in a gripping manner by Morris in the round.
After a strong first act, however, Fournier’s characters start to feel a little too much like mouthpieces or representatives of certain positions and ideas as a couple of strands of the plot move in overly signalled directions.
In a way, however, the playwright subbing in as the philosopher on stage was, rather than a problem, a frank meta-theatrical reminder that this fictional world – as all do – sprang from a particular mind and body trying to riddle out the world we live in.
It’s as fun as if we got to see Henrik Ibsen step into the role of Hedda Gabler – a play this one is often in conversation with, given its wayward wife and intellectual husband with a manuscript about the future. (You might also detect hints of Howard Barker or Caryl Churchill in the writing.)
Chronicling 500 years in an imagined empire, Fournier’s trilogy is an ambitious undertaking for her indie theatre company Paradigm Productions. The Scavenger’s Daughter, the second chapter, plays at Buddies in Bad Times in January; Four Sisters, the final installment, will be produced in association with Luminato in June.
The Philosopher’s Wife whets the appetite for the other courses – and, as entertaining as they turned out to be in this case, here’s hoping for no more unforeseen circumstances.