If you like a tame visit to the theatre, this show is not for you.
Kat Sandler’s electric world premiere dark comedy kicks off Soulpepper Theatre’s Her Words Festival with a bang, and is based on the true story that inspired Beauty and the Beast. But while it has the same source material as Disney’s classic film, I wouldn’t exactly take your kids to this one.
WILDWOMAN delves into Catherine de Medici’s life as she’s brought to France in order to marry King Henry II and produce an heir to the throne. Though she’s initially determined to fit into her place, she quickly finds that making a baby is not as easy as it might seem. Catherine stumbles into the twisted world of Henry’s 16th-century court, where we meet two other women fighting tooth and nail for power: Kitty, a spunky maidservant, and Didi, the King’s former tutor… and elderly mistress. Oh, and there’s a “wildman” with long hair all over his body who the King keeps as a pet. Yes, this is still a true story, and only the tip of the iceberg.
The play is wildly funny and seductive, especially in the first act. Written and directed by Sandler, the script is a fast-paced whirlwind that sucks you into its strange world and doesn’t let you go. Audience members go from laughing their heads off to being scared to make a sound as the tensions grow between the characters onstage.
Sandler’s text masterfully teeters the line between modern and classical. Unlike other plays that insert modern vocabulary into a historical setting, WILDWOMAN’s use of slang and contemporary references never feels distracting and rather elevates the impact of the fiery piece. The socio-political issues it addresses, especially the power of women, feel both distinctly archaic and scarily like our own world. And if you think you know where the plot is going by the end of the first act, I promise, you don’t.
The second act takes off like a shot, but not always in a way that is easy for the audience to follow. While the first act’s scenes move seamlessly from one to the next, the second’s feels a bit more clunky — though perhaps this is an intended effect, as the story itself becomes infinitely more complicated and messy. Characters we think we can trust begin to turn into twisted versions of themselves. Thematically, the second act demonstrates Sandler’s undeniable ability as a playwright and director to deliver a ferocious conclusion that keeps audience members glued to their seats.
WILDWOMAN’s experienced cast gives powerhouse performances across the board. Gabriella Sundar Singh’s Kitty is rambunctious and full of life; she is a joy to watch onstage. Henry, played by Tony Ofori, is simultaneously hilarious and terrifying. Veteran actor Rosemary Dunsmore plays Didi with poise and cunning, compelling the audience’s attention. Dan Mousseau’s Wildman (who’s named Pete by the King) is absolutely full of heart. Rose Napoli’s Catherine is, dare I say, perfect; she metamorphoses right in front of our eyes from scared little girl to woman who takes what she wants.
The set. Oh wow, the set. I could write an entire essay about Nick Blais’ monumental set. The gigantic horns of a stag represent the inside of Henry’s court. In the middle of these horns, a marble statue of the king’s head is mounted on the wall, as if he were a wild animal. Sweeping gold curtains, chandeliers with period-appropriate candles, and a throne intricately ornament the stage. And, no spoilers, but Act Two ends with an addition to the set that has me already anticipating Dora nominations.
Michelle Tracey’s costumes are equally awe-inducing, ringing true to historically accurate garb, with a modern twist. The use of colour especially is both thematically and visually stunning, as she makes use of royal blue and gold. The costumes go through a metamorphosis just as the characters do, showcasing the shifts of power that take place in each.
What stands out to me the most thematically are the power and sexual dynamics in every single relationship on the stage. The intimacy direction by Anita Nittoly is incredibly thoughtful and story-driven, simple yet effective at telling the story of different kinds of sex. Sandler is unafraid to let her characters simply be human — to royally screw up, hurt others, and love even when they shouldn’t. Catherine, Henry, Didi, Pete, and Kitty all feel like living, breathing people despite the fact that the circumstances of their situation are alien to a contemporary audience.
Sandler’s play questions what it means to be a monster, and invites audiences to consider how power might itself be the monster. It is daring, seductive, and unafraid to be absolutely unhinged: you will laugh, and you will be shocked. If you love morally gray characters and a raunchy script, do not be afraid to let the monster out and go see WILDWOMAN.
WILDWOMAN runs until October 29 at Soulpepper Theatre. Tickets are available here.
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