Review: Saint Carmen of the Main (Canadian Stage and National Arts Centre)

By Sam Mooney

Saint Carmen of the Main - Canadian Stage

Michel Tremblay’s play, Saint Carmen of the Main, a co-production of Canadian Stage and National Arts Centre, opened last night at the Bluma Appel Theatre in Toronto.

Michel Tremblay is a Canadian icon, one of those names that we recognize even if we don’t know his work. The only other Tremblay play I’ve seen is For The Pleasure Of Seeing Her Again – a loving tribute to his mother that had me almost sobbing at times. I’ve also read The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant, the fat woman being his mother.

I had read a couple of promo blurbs about Saint Carmen of the Main but other than that knew nothing about it. I was expecting a play with a feeling similar to For The Pleasure Of Seeing Her Again. Other than both being set in Montreal the plays are not at all similar.

The most unexpected thing about Saint Carmen of the Main for me? It’s a classical tragedy, complete with chorus. A Greek tragedy set in Montreal and written in French.

This is the story synopsis from the Canadian Stage site:

” A country singer and darling of Montreal’s seedy red-light district, Carmen triumphantly returns to her old haunts after a visit to Nashville to hone her craft. Doing away with bleedin’ hearts and lonesome nights, Carmen now sings about the people in her audience: hustlers and whores who for the first time become the heroes of these songs, not just the witless consumers. This mythic tale of a nightclub singer who dares make art from the lives of those on the fringes of society is a seminal play from Canada’s best-known playwright.”

Surely I can be forgiven for not expecting a “tragedy”. There I was thinking that Carmen would look like a country singer and that there would be, if not country songs, country music. Was I the only person in the audience who was a bit confused? I would have been better served by a blurb that explained that this is a classical tragedy complete with chorus.

My play companion Pauline and I both loved the costumes. The chorus of male and female hookers was fabulous. Those platform shoes! How do they perform in them. Pauline was convinced that some of the chorus members were actually hookers not actors. She felt that the chorus gave an authentic sense of the community, warts and all, a bit creepy and a bit ugly.

Carmen’s costume was very stylized, almost futuristic, ‘country singer’, all silver, liquid mercury. Pure light according to Pauline. (Although she also said that Carmen’s hair reminded her of My Little Pony. Great line.)

Pauline felt that the production was very clean, very fresh. Everything was essential, nothing unnecessary. A very powerful production.

The play was first produced in 1976 just before the Parti Québécois came to power and was seen as a strong political statement. It was a passionate emotional time. Given the story and the characters’ lives there is still a lot of scope for passion and emotion. It wasn’t there last night. Maybe that’s the nature of a Greek tragedy.

It was an impressive evening of theatre but it wasn’t engaging. There was a distance between the players and the audience. It felt as if we were spectators not participants.


Saint Carmen Of The Main is playing until March 5th at Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front Street East)
– Performances are Monday through Saturday at 8 pm, with a matinee on Wednesdays at 1.30 and Saturdays at 2 pm
– Ticket prices range from $20 to $92 with PWYC on Monday evenings
– Tickets are available by phone – 416.366.7723, in person – 27 Front Street East, or online

Photo of Laara Sadiq and Cast of Saint Carmen of The Main by Bruce Zinger

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