The Philosopher’s Wife interrogates the danger in valuing one belief system over another
By Carly MagaTheatre Critic
Mon., Dec. 10, 2018, 3 out of 4 stars
There are ambitious independent theatre-makers and then there’s Susanna Fournier.
Known for co-creating last season’s quixotic Lulu v.7 // aspects of a femme fatale at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre with ted witzel, Fournier is now pushing her skill and scope as a playwright to new levels.
As the recipient of a New Chapter grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, Fournier is completing her Empire Trilogy project between now and June 2019, which chronicles 500 years in a fictional country’s colonial history. It includes the following elements: three full-length plays (this is the first), a podcast series, short films, digital graphic novels and a physical passport with background information on Fournier’s imagined world that you can literally stamp with every play you see.
The Philosopher’s Wife begins in a period of religious persecution called the Fervour, where certain religions are outlawed by Priests, along with women having jobs.
In the rural north of this fictional country, dog trainer Tereza (Aviva Armour-Ostroff) and her brother Thomas (Danny Ghantous) arrive at the home of the court’s former Philosopher, exiled for having atheist views, but who continues to have an influential relationship with the crowned prince.
The Philosopher takes Thomas as a new pupil as Tereza works, but her charge isn’t a dog: it’s the Philosopher’s wife (Chala Hunter) who, after marrying as a child peasant and several failed pregnancies, has turned feral.
Director Leora Morris and her design team (set by Shannon Lea Doyle, costumes by Alexandra Lord, lighting by Kaitlin Hickey and sound by Christopher Ross-Ewart) work in tandem to create an uncannily familiar setting, a bare bones stage with threatening accents: a large hanging hook, austere shadows and an in-the-round setup that leaves the space surrounded by darkness on all sides.
Fournier herself appears as the Philosopher in The Philosopher’s Wife, a decision made three days before the play’s first preview.
It’s fitting that Fournier took on this extra role in her project, which has been in the works for eight years, particularly as the character that represents privilege and power in this four-hander.
Though she swims in the costume made for a much bigger man, her performance takes up space much larger than her body. And though the script looks explicitly at the power imbalance between men and women in a feudalist society, she and Morris make her characterization extremely clear for the audience. We all know who the philosopher is: he’s renowned in his field, he has money and powerful friends, he’s well-meaning. Even as Fournier’s feminine appearance complicates our impression of the Philosopher, this description ripples throughout the play’s two acts.
Of course, there’s another power play at work; Fournier has a constant upper hand over the others as the person who created them. As the play interrogates the danger in valuing one belief system over another, even a lack of one, Fournier’s presence as a creator, thecreator, who pontificates with unshakable confidence as the only noble in the play, pokes holes in the notion that there’s any objective truth in art as well as in life.
The Philosopher’s Wife is a dark, violent and intellectually rigorous medieval version of Pygmalion, geared for the modern age, portraying religion and science as dangerously fallible (along with patriarchy), and instinctual, non-verbal methods of knowledge and communication as a potential saviour.
This is seen mostly clearly through Tereza and the wife’s nurturing relationship, which begins with physical contact and evolves into running and eventually language, and the wife’s thin barrier between human and animal (in her first meeting with Tereza, Hunter’s haunting vocals slide between a deep growl and whine to a human gasp, letting her own voice escape).
Hunter and Armour-Ostroff are engaging as performers, and their physical negotiation of dominance, submission, challenge and acceptance is mesmerizing to watch (part of the credit goes to Casey Hudecki’s fight direction and Scott Emerson Moyle’s intimacy direction).
The Philosopher’s Wife is a satisfying experience on its own, despite leaning too heavily on its ideas and Fournier’s poetic speeches as this family compact crumbles. But keep your passport to the Empire Trilogy handy; this appears to be a journey worth completing.