THY NEIGHBOUR'S WIFE by T. Beagan, directed by Leah Simone Bowen, with Tara Beagan, Emily Boutet, Natasha Martina and Chris Hanratty. Presented by UnSpun Theatre at the Theatre Centre (1087 Queen West). Runs to June 19, Thursday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Thursday and Saturday 2 pm. $15. 416-538-0988. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Unspun Theatre premiered last winter with a show I didn't see. Wish I had, though, given the splendid quality of its latest presentation, T. Beagan 's Thy Neighbour's Wife . Set in 1915 Alberta, it tells the little-known story of Jennie Hawkes ( Emily Boutet ), who shot to death her neighbour Rosella Stoley ( Natasha Martina ), the latest lover of Hawkes's husband Wilfred ( Chris Hanratty ). The first woman in the province condemned to be hanged, Jennie received a lesser sentence due to the enormous outcry from the women of Alberta.
Beagan - who also plays the show's narrator, the Hawkes' Irish maid Aisling - immediately shows us the murder and then begins investigating its causes. She paints a world where men can define their lives and have affairs if they want, while women are constrained on all levels by social straitjackets. The author puts forward a powerful feminist reading of the material, but the show's striking theatricality makes the piece far more than a lesson in gender issues.
Some scenes, for instance, take place simultaneously, so we see Jennie discussing relationship issues with her husband while he's fondling Rosella. The staging alone makes a strong statement, both comic and unsettling, and director Leah Simone Bowen along with her cast tease out all the ironies of the paired situations. In fact, there's an impressive, quicksilver melding of scenes throughout.
All three women, each rejected in her own way, are initially isolated in their own spaces in Patrick Beagan 's fine movable set of rough-cut wooden lathe, which includes the wall hole that allowed easy movement between the two homes.
By the show's end, each character has offered a sympathetic version of the road she's taken in her life and discovers the similarities that unite her to the others as victims.
The impressive writing has a poetic quality, especially in its early scenes, and a touch of choral work that never steps into pretentiousness. When the characters talk in the kitchen about "a peach of a tart," the reference flips back and forth between what's been baked and Rosella's carrying-on with Wilfred.
I'd like to know more about the groundswell effort by women that led to the court's commuting the death sentence, but that's not Beagan's focus here.
The acting is uniformly fine, though there's a paleness to the condescending Wilfred; maybe he's intentionally a two-dimensional figure compared to the richer-drawn women. Beagan is especially memorable as the talkative, philosophizing Aisling, who as a servant sees more than she reveals and ends up being, on several levels, Jennie Hawkes' protector and friend. The actor/writer creates a warm, open and winning woman who anchors the play's narrative and emotions.
An auspicious production, full of dramatic magic. Vivid victims