Wretch is a work of art. The show is the brainchild of The Malicious Basement’s artistic director Alexander Barth and director Marissa Blair after numerous discussions between them about theatre and philosophy.
“I thought he was working on a ‘Goldilocks-type’ story, and then he came back with Wretch,” Blair says in an email.
Wretch debuted at Festival de la Bête Noire’s virtual theatre festival in February 2021, and will be part of Montreal Fringe 2021. The theatre community has faced particular challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Most have opted to go virtual or spend the time working on projects they’ve been neglecting. This created particular challenges with Wretch, with actors having to wear masks the whole time, and Blair and cast developing a culture and characters that fit CNESST safety guidelines and their personal comfort zones.
Festival de la Bête Noire had production rules that restricted any post production or cutting. In order to work around this, Blair created a fourth character, the Voyeur, who would act as the audience’s eyes, “able to roam around the stage space (in the round) deciding what was important to see – to work as an invisible entity, or a ghost-like figure walking amongst the other characters.”
Other challenges came with Quebec’s (soon to be lifted) curfew, as it created additional limitations regarding rehearsal times. As to what it was like filming a play as opposed to preparing something for the live stage, Blair says it’s completely different, “like asking a baseball player to join a cricket match. Not everyone can do it, or should do it.”
If you’re looking for a play that follows a straightforward format with an introduction, denouement, and conclusion this is not the show for you. If you are uncomfortable witnessing physical and emotional abuse, this is definitely not the show for you. An abuse survivor myself, the show made me squirm in a lot of ways and I was grateful that a friend agreed to watch it with me – socially distanced and masked.
The best way to describe Wretch is as a study, an insight into the kinds of abuse that typically happens behind closed doors. There is blood, one of Marissa Blair’s signatures, and there is some other liquid my friend and I thought was either bile or feces, all fake, of course.
There is also emotional abuse, bondage, pain and mutilation. What makes this piece a standout is how accurately it portrays how an abuser can go from mundane affection to brutal physical and emotional abuse. More importantly, the gender dynamic is flipped, with Lila Bata-Walsh as the abuser and Jordan Prentice the abusee.
The tale of a woman being abused is a tale we’re all familiar with, but situations where a man is abused by a woman are still taboo. Wretch forces this dynamic out into the open, with Jordan Prentice’s riveting portrayal of a man trying to navigate his partner’s abusive, violent mood swings and actions, and yet so accustomed to both that he cannot bring himself to leave despite being given every opportunity.
Playing off of him, Lila Bata-Walsh is scary, portraying the shifts between childlike anger and romantic yet maternal love, perfectly playing the violent aggression and mood swings that so many abuse survivors are all-too familiar with. The third player in Wretch is the one whom I sadly had the greatest issues with. Jacqueline Van De Geer plays Mother Bliss, a dominatrix “topping” both Bata-Walsh and Prentice, and while she did hit all the marks one would expect of a domme, her movements and delivery were too stylized, rendering them insincere.
Van De Geer’s Mother Bliss doesn’t seem like an actual dominatrix at work, but rather an actor playing a dominatrix at work. I would have liked to see a Mother Moon that was more relaxed, with a quieter kind of intensity than what I saw in Wretch.
If you want a true insight into domestic abuse, with a little BDSM thrown in, you need to see Wretch. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s also captivating.
Wretch is playing online June 1st to 20th as part of the hybrid 2021 Montreal Fringe Festival. Tickets available through MontrealFringe.ca (currently only the 20th is displayed)
Mylène Chicoine is no stranger to horror. She founded Festival de la Bête Noire as a way to share what helps her to de-stress.
While some turn to comedy and laughter, for Chicoine and those like her, it’s horror and horror-themed art that allow them a form of catharsis, freeing themselves from their demons by confronting them head on.
Festival de la Bête Noire is a horror theatre festival that normally has hosted shows that audiences take in on site and in-person since 2018. But the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a great toll on the arts.
Theaters are closed, and gatherings that would allow for live shows are banned for now. For those needing to keep art and culture alive, the pandemic and the ensuing public health measures have presented a lot of challenges and the name of the game has been adapt or die.
Festival de la Bête Noire has decided to go online this year and I spoke with Mylène Chicoine about what that means.
“We’re not doing in it an actual physical space,” she said. “It’s a multimedia online event from people’s living rooms. We’ve removed the physical aspect completely.”
In order to keep the authenticity of live theater consistent with the spirit of past festivals, Chicoine and her team decided to have as little postproduction as possible, meaning that recorded shows should try to minimize editing and video effects after recording.
“We are NOT a movie festival, we are a THEATRE festival. We still want to see theatre, and performance, and live art even though it’s technically not live.”
When asked about the response to the change in format this year, she said most of the responses have been extremely positive, admitting that Bête Noire almost didn’t happen this year due to the pandemic. The festival happened because of the outpouring of support from the theatre community and its fans.
“We had a lot of demand from the community: Are we doing it this year? Are we doing it? Is it going to happen? We need it. The biggest motivation for the team was the community wants it so we’re going to give it to them.”
Festival de la Bête Noire has 16 shows this year. Two of the shows are mixed shows featuring separate performances within a single show.
The virtual festival has a few alumni, including the The Malicious Basement, Quagmire Productions, and Marissa Blair. In the name of transparency, I myself am acting and handling design for Quagmire’s Poe in the Snow.
Chicoine says that festival alumni were given an extra week to apply knowing that they are faithful participants who have provided good content in the past.
“We like to have repeat performers because it gives them a name and a platform that they need.”
The virtual format has not been without its challenges. Many artists expressed concerns about the ban on post-production, claiming that the festival was trying to restrict their art.
“We don’t want to restrict their art, we want to restrict their technology, that’s the big difference. If you’re in a venue, you’re not using a green screen, you wouldn’t use one in your living room either. We don’t want to make it look like a movie, but of course we’ve had to be a bit more flexible, especially with the new lockdown.”
Chicoine says the festival’s limits on technology this year were among some of the biggest challenges for performers. It forced performers to stretch their creative muscles and think outside the box.
Other challenges for the Festival de la Bête Noire were unfortunate realities of the COVID-19 pandemic. People involved with the companies and performers or their loved ones were exposed to the virus and either got sick and/or were forced to self-isolate. The pandemic itself resulted in some theatre companies dropping out of the festival entirely.
“We understand completely that these things are going to happen and we have had production meetings with every company that has required one to formulate a different kind of plan, whether it’s an extension, being more flexible on technology, but unfortunately we did lose a couple of companies to COVID.”
Most of the companies that dropped out were outside of Montreal and could not participate due to the pandemic, while some participants even got sick and died. It has been really upsetting for everyone involved with Bête Noire, but Chicoine and her team anticipated this happening.
Festival de la Bête Noire 2021 is fulfilling its mandate by giving artists and performers a platform to explore the horror genre by performing, creating and watching, and being a part of something, bringing people together in a socially distant way.
When I asked Chicoine if there were any advantages to going virtual, she pointed to fact that it allowed for more international entries, speaking of participating companies in the US and as far away as Japan. Chicoine mentioned The Peony Lantern by The Yokohama Group, a multimedia performance that takes place in the World Peace Theatre in Kawasaki, Japan.
Given the unpredictability of the pandemic, Mylène Chicoine is preparing for disaster, but it has not dampened her excitement for the shows on offer this year. When asked if there were any shows she was particularly excited about, she mentioned Pento by Mad Paradox, a show about mental health issues.
As for the technicalities regarding the accessing the shows, Chicoine and her team demurred from using sites like YouTube and TikTok because they’re too restrictive. In order to avoid the censorship that comes with those sites, all ticket holders will be sent a Google Drive link to their show which gives them one week to watch it at their convenience. Viewers don’t need a Gmail account to access the link.
Festival de la Bête Noire is running virtually from February 17, 2021 to March 15, 2021. For more info check out LaBeteNoirFest.com
The Chilean refugees who arrived in Canada in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly in Montreal, have been a community that has captivated me throughout the past two years. I was therefore ecstatic to have the opportunity to see The Refugee Hotel staged at The Segal Centre. Despite some awkward translation into English and a difficult script to work with, the play is an excellent one that I recommend – particularly after yesterday’s events in the USA.
These brave Chileans who came across the oceans were faced with two choices; the first being to trust that everything would be okay for them in Chile if they kept their heads down, stayed in line, and trusted that the military would “make Chile great again”. The second: to restart their entire lives in a country with a new language, new food, new music, and of course, the omnipresent “Canadian values” (still searching for a definition of those, other than the ability to properly cross-check someone).
Teesri Duniya Theatre’s production of The Refugee Hotel does its sincere best to answer these questions. The script draws from author-and-playwright Carmen Aguirre’s lived experience as the child of Chilean refugees growing up in 1970s Canada. It’s an impressive story made even more poignant by its autobiographical basis.
This is one of the reasons that it is so frustrating to review this play. Though the premise is admirable, Aguirre’s play shortchanges itself by trying to fit too many facets of the Chilean refugee story, and indeed, the story of human migration, into two short acts.
At the centre of the play are Jorge (Pablo Diconca) and Flaca (Gilda Monreal), a married couple who represent two sides of the resistance movement in Chile. Jorge is something of a milquetoast pacifist anarchist accountant, while his wife is a firebrand Marxist active in the MIR (the Revolutionary Leftist Movement).
Their two children escape with them to a hotel in Canada, where they meet other Chilean refugees subjected to inhuman torture in the Carabineros’ concentration camps. The rest of the play progresses at a slow pace as each rediscovers their humanity and intimacy, one-by-one in a frustratingly perfect way.
By “frustratingly perfect,” I mean that of course the mute girl is coaxed into to talking at the end of the second act, and she falls for the man who talks with her first, and of course they end the play with a freeze-frame photo motif. The play’s unfortunate dives into clichés keep it from developing serious critiques.
Jorge and Flaca’s struggle to be intimate once again despite the horrific sexual torture that the Carabineros inflicted upon her is a topic that is criminally underrepresented in works of art; and even less so is it approached sensitively. An exploration of that theme alone would have made for a powerful and moving production, but Aguirre’s insistence on shoehorning so many important themes into the play means that extraordinarily difficult trauma from torture is treated as nothing more than a plot point. For example, two suicide attempts that happen within two minutes of another are treated as comedic moments.
Moreover, I felt that the repeated flashbacks to scenes of torture in the Estadio Nacional de Chile are not used to explore the characters’ motivations and histories, but rather as punctuation marks for the drama as a whole.
The play is being performed at the Segal Centre, which bills itself as the heart of Montreal’s Anglophone theatre culture. This presents an interesting double-edged sword for the actors in that they are reading from a script originally written in Spanish, for an English-speaking audience in French Canada.
Certain recurring parts of the script (such as the nickname for Jorge, “Little-Big-Bear”) sound awkward in English where they would have made perfect sense in Spanish (“Osito Grande,” better understood as “Teddy Bear”). On a larger scale, the familiar words, particularly “desaparecido,” used to articulate the brutality of the Pinochet regime are lost in translation.
Furthermore, the play misses opportunity to develop a more nuanced comedic character in Bill O’Neill, the enthusiastic Québécois hippie who helps the guests at the Refugee Hotel find work. In the Spanish script, he speaks with comically poor but confident command over Spanish, but in this English adaptation, his dialogue sounds like a 19th-century caricature – “Army me take to stadium. Bad men take Bill!”
Other than awkward phrasing, this makes the characterization of Bill difficult for the audience, as he is repeatedly referred to (kindly) as “the only gringo who speaks Spanish.” In poor translation, Bill’s character shifts from that of a Canadian activist with a sincere wish to improve his Spanish and act in solidarity with Chilean refugees into a buffoon.
This is the part of reviewing that I do not enjoy. The story itself is captivating, and the curation behind the set design and music choices was phenomenal. I just wish that the story was more focused on one or two of these families, instead of a script that leaves several important facets of post-traumatic stress equally unexamined.
All of this is not to say that I did not find the play enjoyable and tastefully performed – in fact, the actors did a stellar job working with an awkward script, and the set direction was simple and elegant. I give a special commendation to the Set Designer, Diana Uribe, who placed the beds of the hotel at an upright 90º angle, which allowed the actors to remain part of the action, while staying true to the stage direction to lie supine.
The music choices, namely the major-key Victor Jara folk ballads that accompanied scenes of horrific torture in the Estadio Nacional may have been shocking to people unfamiliar with Chile’s musical history – but it seems a deliberate nod to the famous Cueca Sola spot produced by the Anti-Pinochet Campaign during the 1989 plebiscite made famous by Pablo Larraín’s 2012 film. This is made all the more poignant by the fact that Victor Jara was tortured to death in the Estadio Nacional, specifically targeted and brutally murdered for his popularity and beliefs.
Speaking with the actor who played Jorge, Pablo Diconca, I learned that many of the cast came into this production with the explicit goal of putting faces to the communities so left behind by history. Diconca is a Uruguayan-born Montrealer who has been an integral part of the local theatre scene since his arrival in Canada at 19:
“I can not ever forget the fact that I have an accent, and I will always have one. This has restricted me as an actor – I have played drug dealers, murderers, and taxi drivers more than I can count,” Pablo told me. “When I came to Canada, I refused these roles out of principle…but with time, I came to realize that acting is my passion, and that by being on stage, this is how one becomes involved in the local culture and community. One must put their heart into acting. It becomes easier when the script is [about] something you already have in your heart. I was invited to be a part of this cast, and I didn’t see how I could turn it down. This is a play that can help to open minds.”
Teesri Duniya’s Artistic Director and co-founder, Rahul Varma, explained to me that he chose to stage this play as a way of “challenging the notion that 9/11 of 2001 divided the world into pre-9/11 and post 9/11…there have been so many other 9/11s, such as the 9/11 of 1973.” Rahul is of course referring to the military coup in Chile that took place on September 11, 1973, where the Chilean Air Force bombed downtown Santiago and assassinated the democratically-elected head of state, Salvador Allende.
Rahul continued, referencing the current Syrian refugee crisis, “I thought that this play brings certain realities of the past and connects them to what is currently happening. The idea is to look into what has happened – why is it that refugees are coming to Canada? Why do people leave their homes elsewhere?”
According to their website, Teesri Duniya Theatre “is dedicated to producing, developing and presenting socially and politically relevant theatre, based on the cultural experiences of diverse communities.” They are an incredibly important part of Montreal’s Arts community and I am thrilled to see that they took it upon themselves to tell the story of an underrepresented and important part of Canada.
As we draw to the closing of this play’s run at the Segal Centre, as well as the dawning of an unprecedented dark cloud over North American immigration politics, it is important to remember the lessons left by Chilean-Canadians’ struggles in and out of their homeland. I salute Teesri Duniya Theatre, The Segal Centre, and the cast and crew of this production for shining a light on the challenges faced by refugees in a sensitive and responsible manner despite an unaccommodating script.
El pueblo unido jamás será vencido.
The Refugee Hotel is playing until Sunday at The Segal Centre (5170 ch. de la Côte-Ste-Catherine). Tickets available here.