For more than 30 years, Québec playwright Michel Tremblay has been forging a dramatic link between the political and the personal. In his latest work, Impromptu On Nuns' Island, he yokes the demands of the two through art. Literally.At the play's centre is Patricia Pasquetti, an internationally renowned opera singer who's embarrassed herself on the stage of the Paris Opera and come home to lick her wounds.
Born Patricia Paquette, she shed her separatist political views and her husband along with her name. Confronted in her elegant penthouse apartment by her daughter, Michelle, and her mother, Estelle, both opinionated actors themselves, she's reminded of what she's turned her back on, personally, professionally and politically.
"This interaction between mothers and daughters intrigues me," offers Dixie Seatle, who plays Patricia, "especially the power of a dominating, narcissistic mother over a daughter who might become the person she's rebelled against her entire life. The criticism of a parent can be devastating, generation after generation."
And if the snobbish Patricia quickly reveals an aggressive bravado, Seatle notes that it's compensating for an insecurity nurtured by her mother, who insists on being the centre of attention.
"The opera world is perfect for Patricia's kind of personality, since its devoted fans often feed the egos of the stars. She's like the egocentric Salome -- the role she cracks in -- who feels everything is going her way until the world is pulled out from under her."
The tension of the play increases with the addition of Richard, Patricia's accompanist, a gay man who has trouble confronting the diva over the lapdog status she's given him. They're like a bickering husband and wife who know each other's foibles all too well.
"I'm fascinated with the musical quality of Tremblay's writing that connects Patricia and Richard," continues Seatle, who recently won a Gemini for her work as a transsexual in the TV series Paradise Falls.
"Some of their scenes happen simultaneously but in different places, so that rhythmically our lines come together and overlap, with themes running parallel or interweaving.
"In several scenes Robert Persichini and I don't look at each other, so I've had to develop a strange, ethereal connection with him. I have to sensitize myself to him through the air. Maybe it's a little insight into the way Richard and Patricia synchronize when they make music together."
Think of it as a spoken duet, one of the several motifs in the play's score.
But even more important is the political tone that sounds regularly here. Patricia was a Parti Quebecois supporter who left, disillusioned, after the 1980 referendum.
"She'd put all her dreams and hopes in that political basket, and when it didn't work she couldn't cope. Patricia fled everything Canadian -- and Quebecois -- to devote herself to a career in Europe."
Seatle discovered last month that separatist feelings are far from dead.
"When we performed in Montreal, the sovereignty movement still proved its sway. Even with a largely Anglo audience, I felt a charge in the air when Patricia talks about how the party faithful didn't even come close to achieving their goals. I wonder how the same line will play in a largely English-speaking city like Toronto."
IMPROMPTU ON NUNS' ISLAND by Michel Tremblay, translated by Linda Gaboriau, directed by Diana Leblanc, with Diana Donnelly, Patricia Hamilton, Robert Persichini and Dixie Seatle. Presented by the Tarragon and Centaur Theatre in the Tarragon Mainspace (30 Bridgman). Opens tonight (Thursday, January 2) and runs to February 2, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday 2:30 pm. $25-$31, Sunday pwyc-$15. 416-531-1827.