The Philosopher's Wife marries an Atwood-esque premise with striking theatricality

Susanna Fournier's Empire Trilogy – an ambitious experiment in serial narrative – gets off to a smashing start


Set in some feudal terrain on the cusp of the Enlightenment, the inaugural production in Susanna Fournier’s Empire Trilogy is a transporting speculative gothic, one that strikes with the force of an exacting drillmaster’s hand.

The play concerns an affluent philosopher (Fournier), ostracized for his atheism, who hires dog trainer Tereza (Aviva Armour-Ostroff) to rehabilitate his wife (Chala Hunter), who, in the wake of recent traumas, has started behaving like a savage canine.

The Atwood-esque premise is precariously schematic, but the execution is infused with intriguing particularities, psychological acuity, and a wild, vivid carnality that sweeps us far away from the coziness of mere allegory.

Director Leora Morris stages the show in the round on set designer Shannon Lea Doyle’s vast, gloomy platform, from which pools, wood stoves and dungeons seamlessly emerge. The production builds its alternate past without undue exposition: some scenes are talky, others intensely physical.

Kaitlin Hickey’s lighting design seems endlessly resourceful, capable of evoking both the thrill of racing through woods of stuttering sunlight and the gloom of an opium-addled pauper (Danny Ghantous) struggling through illness by firelight.

Christopher Ross-Ewart’s soundscapes are immersive, though nothing coming from the theatre’s speakers is more powerful than the pounding of chains on the floor or the trickle of water as Tereza forces the wife to bathe.

The cast is uniformly strong, even Fournier, who was charged with having to replace the show’s original philosopher days before opening. Fournier’s predecessor was a man, yet the gender-reverse casting seems so in keeping with the play’s feminist, paradigm-questioning spirit I wouldn’t have given Fournier’s casting a second thought had I not known of its cause.

The standouts, however, are easily Armour-Ostroff, whose discipline, anxiety and deadpan humour keep the story grounded in the real, and Hunter, upon whose wiry frame the play’s bold central conceit rests.

The wife’s animalistic fugue isn’t suggested – it’s embodied, fully and precisely, and is never entirely absent even after she’s upright, speaking in complete sentences, and poised to accompany her husband on his journey to usher in an age of reason.

The rest of the Empire trilogy will open in the coming months. I’d guess each show will work fine as stand-alone pieces, but you’d be wise to get in on the ground floor of this ambitious new experiment in independent serial narrative.

Susanna Fournier