by Dorianne Emmerton
Stranger Theatre’s mandate is to tell stories inspired by history, literature and folklore using a variety of performance techniques. Their newest show,The Hanging of Françoise Laurent at Theatre Passe Muraille (Backspace) as part of Summerworks tells the true story of a Montreal maidservant sentenced to death for stealing a pair of her Madame’s gloves. The year is 1751 and according to the law of the time a woman could escape a death sentence if the hangman marries her.
Montreal does not have a hangman, as the old one has died and no one has stepped up to take the undesirable position. In order to take advantage of this law Françoise must convince the man in the cell next to her to take on the role of hangman and then to marry her.
It’s a bizarre tale that not many of us have heard. I applaud Stranger Theatre for bringing this intriguing bit of Canadian history to light.
For this piece they do not use all of the tools in their arsenal of performance: there is no puppetry or clowning. There is, however, an incredible use of objects and light to create imagery, live accordion music played onstage (by Sarah Cormier, who plays Françoise’s Madame) and singing. There is also storytelling interwoven with the dramatic scenes. Kiersten Tough often steps out of the character of Françoise to tell her own story and as Françoise she often tells Madame and Jean stories.
Jean, played by Zach Fraser, is the solder imprisoned next to Françoise for fighting a duel. At other moments he plays Madame’s husband but for the most part he is Jean.
The set consists of two wooden boxes and a wooden three-part screen. The props are a box full of gloves and a rope. Occasionally the stage lighting is not used and instead there is a flashlight on stage. This sounds far too bare bones to have created the gorgeous images I saw during that hour. If it was still 1751 I might suspect Stranger Theatre of witchcraft to pull off what they have done.
It did take me a while to get fully pulled into the play. There is no real characterization so I wasn’t immediately compelled to care about Françoise’s fate. To analogize theatre with literature, this wasn’t a novel so much as a poem.
For example, there is a scene near the beginning where Madame and Françoise are getting along like gangbusters and then all of a sudden Madame is angry at Françoise for pitying her. The audience has no idea at the time why there is any reason for pity and what could have caused such a turnabout in their dynamic. I admit, I wondered at the time if this was a miscalculation in the script – if all we were supposed to get from it was that Madame was a changeable woman.
But in a hauntingly evocative scene later in the play the backstory behind their relationship is revealed. The payoff is well worth the earlier confusion.
– All individual Summerworks tickets are $10 at the door (cash only)
Advance tickets are $11 ($10+$1 convenience fee)
Tickets can be purchased:
-Online at artsboxoffice.ca
-by Phone at 416.504.7529
– in person at the Arts Box Office (located at Theatre Passe Muraille 16 Ryerson Avenue, One block North East of Bathurst & Queen)
– Several money-saving passes are available if you plan to see multiple shows