One of the more compelling throughlines of the season has been that of religion — embracing it, rejecting it, manipulating it. Wielding vastly different points of view and authorial styles, this season’s playwrights have approached the power of organized religion head-on, building complex worlds around spirituality and its various presences in modern society.
Rachel Mutombo’s Vierge, in its thrilling world premiere at Factory Theatre, rips Christianity to its bones, hunting for any sign of its relevance to today’s youth. Director Natasha Mumba is more than up for the task of asking these difficult questions, sifting through teenagehood for any semblance of a religious foothold.
Set in a church basement, Vierge bears witness to the real-time effects of gossip on an otherwise close-knit church community. There’s a new pastor, we hear — the last one stepped down for murky reasons. His daughter, the confident and occasionally bratty Bien-Aimé (a radiant Kudakwashe Rutendo), is allegedly a homewrecker, but surely that can’t be true, since she’s happily involved with a boyfriend we never meet.
Then there’s the Katende sisters, Grace and Sarah, recent arrivals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They’re the same age, but not twins, and conspicuously prone to frequent spats about nothing. Grace came to Canada first, and while she goes to church, she’s more than willing to indulge in her adolescent sexual desires (she’s played by the very funny Yvonne Addai). Sarah, on the other hand, still struggles with the occasional English idiom (as Grace frequently reminds her), and as we get to know her, it seems that’s not all she’s grappling with (she’s brought to life in a subtle, shimmering performance by JD Leslie).
We get to know these queen bees of the church through the eyes of Divine, as pious as her name might suggest and prone to sporting any number of brightly coloured cardigans (in brilliant, cheeky costume design by Joyce Padua). Shauna Thompson has her work cut out for her — Divine is as likeable as she is prudish, with little to suggest anything by way of character flaws for much of the play’s exposition — but in Vierge’s final breath, Thompson gorgeously brings the dark side of Divine’s devotion to life, playing both edges of a teenage girl unexposed to the adult world lying beneath the surface of her church.
As Vierge develops, it quickly becomes clear this is no Mean Girls odyssey from clunky to cool for Divine — it’s much, much richer than that. While a passing knowledge of theology will enhance your enjoyment of the play (it’s no accident that Divine’s Bible study group group just can’t seem to get through the Book of Ruth), Mutombo has built a world compelling on its own merit, leaving the audience to engage with the religious signposts in the text as much or as little as they wish. Mutombo’s skill as a playwright is fiercely evident here, and she’s opted for a bold, divisive ending (or, well, non-ending — much of the play’s tension is left unresolved, an exciting and, to my eye, perfect choice for this play). Rachel Forbes’ set ably suggests the church basement location (though does at times create some sightline issues, particularly during scenes in the pastor’s cluttered office), and Jareth Li’s lights are inventive and fun, especially during an ill-fated church dance. Andrew Johnson’s nostalgic sound design equally suggests that high-school-dance atmosphere, rife with veritable bangers of the early 2010s.
Vierge is a brave and beautiful new play stuffed to the gills with talent and intrigue. It’s got all the charm of last year’s The Waltz and all the religious drama of Tarragon’s The Hooves Belonged to the Deer. Go.
Vierge runs at Factory Theatre through April 8–30, 2023.