LES FILLES DU ROI
Fugue Theatre/Raven Theatre in Association with Urban Ink and The Cultch, York Theatre, until May 27th
My Two Cents
By Emma Rossland
Les Filles Du Roi by Corey Payette and Julie McIsaac is a new tri-language musical about friendship and love in a time of change and devastation. The musical is stunning with gorgeous backdrops of Canadian landscapes, and will take you on a journey that you just won’t be able to forget.
The story happens in two parts: late summer and winter. The first half of the play is optimistic; it’s summer and 'les filles du roi' (translated as 'the daughters of the king', women sent by the king of France to marry farmers and “populate” the settlement) are arriving in the new world. There is a sense of anticipation, both from les filles and from Kateri, a young Mohawk girl played by Kaitlyn Yott, who looks forward to meeting them and learning their language. One young French woman Marie-Jeanne, Julie McIsaac, becomes friends with Kateri and her brother Jean-Baptiste, Raes Calvert. The first half seems almost too lighthearted, as if the horrible history of the Indigenous peoples has been omitted. This changes, however, when winter comes. The winter is cold and dark and with it comes pain and suffering. An unwanted marriage, an unjust imprisonment, and a forced baptism all happen as the first snow starts to fall. The winter is full of misery and many hardships, but in the end there is again a sense of hope for the future. It is, however, a tainted hope. The finale shows les filles du roi singing a reprise of the song they sang when first arriving at the New World, it’s a happy song that’s full of hope, but their smiles seem forced and somehow ironic when juxtaposed with what has happened throughout the latter half of the show.
The variety of music, from religious prayers to more standard musical theatre mixed with Indigenous inspiration, is remarkable. The lyrics, as well as the dialogue in the play, are in English, French, and Kanien’kéha (the Mohawk language) which blends beautifully together. The performers do an incredible job of switching seamlessly between two or three languages. It isn’t necessary to be able to speak all three languages as there are English subtitles throughout most of the play, though I found myself paying less and less attention to the subtitles as they somehow seem unnecessary while watching the action on stage unfold.
Musically, at first it is lighthearted and upbeat, then turns darker with the approach of winter. At times the screeching of the violin builds the tension at pivotal moments and creates a sense of unease in the audience. The singing for the most part is decent, though not as tight and consistent as it could be. The strongest singers are McIsaac and most significantly Chelsea Rose, who plays the Clan Mother and Chorus.
Though the singing isn’t as strong as one could hope, other aspects of the performances more than make up for it. Yott will steal your hearts as Kateri. Starting off as an innocent and curious girl who sees the best in people, she suffers many hardships throughout the play and learns to be more cautious while still managing to keep her optimism and hope. McIsaac’s voice will enchant you as she portrays Marie-Jeanne, who is at first helpless to change her abusive situation, grows as she realizes that the only person who can truly help her is herself and so seeks her freedom and independence. There is a touching scene between Kateri and Marie-Jeanne when they first meet and attempt to communicate. There are no subtitles during this scene as the audience struggles to understand along with the characters. Yott and McIsaac make this scene both tender and funny as they build a friendship that is at the heart of the story. Calvert has one of the most linguistically difficult roles as Jean-Baptiste. He is fluent in all three languages and so Calvert must switch between them throughout the story. He does an excellent job and makes it seem effortless.
I could go on for ages about Les Filles Du Roi; the story, the set, the performances, the direction are all incredible. Perhaps the biggest success of the play was the effect on the audience. They laughed, cried, and at the end they gave a standing ovation. If any show deserves a standing ovation, this one does. But don’t take my word for it, see it for yourself.