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ISSUE 121 VOL 16 PUBLISHED 4/11/2008

Cast of 'Les Belles Soeurs' preps for debut

By Luke Schlather
Contributing Writer

Friday, April 11, 2008

Michel Tremblay's "Les Belles-Soeurs," playing in Kelsey Theatre through April 12, packs quite a punch. I had a chance to see a good segment of the play during dress rehearsal Tuesday night. Though primarily a grimly realistic comedy, the play often jumps into wild, synchronized movement. Then, while the rest of the stage holds at a standstill, impressive soliloquies are delivered in spotlight.

Earlier that night, Kelsey theatre was no less awash with energy. The set crew was hurrying to get the set ready for the dress rehearsal. Abbee Warmboe '10 mopped the floor of the kitchen, getting rid of the sawdust and other detritus that accumulated over the final few weeks of construction. That scene has an odd resonance with the play, which centers on the struggles of fifteen lower class women, who live in Montreal just after World War II. In the midst of the preparations, I sat down and had a talk with Dona Freeman about her work directing this play.

Tremblay wrote the play in three weeks at the age of 23, influenced to a good degree by his upbringing, raised by five women in a lower-class Montreal apartment. The play specifically calls for a claustrophobic environment, which "made for very interesting rehearsals," Freeman said. Usually directing has a sort of intimate, one-on-one or at least a small group feel. With this production, she joked, she almost felt like "a hostess at a party."

This crowded stage made for very busy rehearsals. Again, where a usual rehearsal focuses on the intimate movements between a few people, the ensemble spent much of their time organizing the space, designed to evoke a small kitchen. Freeman described the way she sought to draw focus, how one actor would have to move across the stage towards the next person to speak, drawing the audience's eyes in the proper direction. With at least 12 people onstage for almost the entirety of the play, it would be easy for the audience to look the wrong way. "All of that has to be meticulously planned -- of course, it should all look like it just happened," Freeman said.

Anna Dalager '08 described the importance of the ensemble in the production. "Each character is important in their own way," she said. Dalager also noted the religious dimensions to the play. Each of the sisters seems plagued by their sins. Dalager saw her character, Germaine, especially caught up with greed over the prize of a million stamps. Germaine must enlist her entire family to take advantage of this prize, and this is the action around which the play focuses.

The play was originally written in Joual, a rough, earthy dialect of French spoken by the working class of Quebec, formed with a good deal of influence from the English also spoken there. Tremblay wrote it in Joual as a reaction against the romanticized French characters he would often see in films. He sought to show the real, working class of Quebec in a way he rarely saw in films.

The production here at St. Olaf opens up that world beautifully. Each member of the cast really does present something unique to offer to the audience, each character with their own view of this gritty and difficult reality.

Their struggles to maintain what little good life they have give a powerful reminder of just how hard people must work when they're living on the lower rungs of the social ladder. Attending as we do a college at an (ever climbing) high rung of that ladder, such reminders are all too infrequent.

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