We are initially confronted by a perfectly ordinary show: a sort of domestic comedy-of-manners. Funny, but unexceptional.
But about five minutes into the second act, when the characters stand up and turn themselves into storytellers, you realize nothing was quite as it appeared–and the third act transforms it all yet again, with a whole new layer of meta-metatheatre which must be seen to be understood.
I was wobbly up until I figured this out; until that second-act revelation, I wasn’t sure what was going on. But as soon as I picked up on the thread, I loved it.
The titular mothers are a sort of Austrian coffee klatch; Erna (Lorna Wilson), a curmudgeon who is utterly determined to see the worst in everyone, taking comfort only in her used television and a truly atrocious fur bonnet; Grete (Astrid van Weiren), an upright, open-minded sort who often shocks her more prudish friends; and Mariedl (Vickie Papavs), whose meekness, devout Catholicism and love for all living things would have seen her become a nun, but in a post-Vatican II world is reduced to scrubbing other people’s floors.
These women banter with and off of one another, trading advice, compliments, barbs and daintily-wrapped candies. Erna with her fancy-man who works at the butcher’s; Grete with her beloved dachsund; Mariedl and her obsession with blocked toilets. The dialogue is snappy and fluent (Meredith Oakes, translating from the original German, deserves enormous kudos for this achievement), but at that turn in the second act, things get real.
Each woman slips into a fantasy world of her own, crafting an adventure through a party. Erna, whose boyfriend proposes; Grete, who seduces a tuba-player; Mariedl, who reaches into a toilet and withdraws the most incredible things imaginable.
I’m mentioning toilets a lot. So do the women. But part of the point of the exercise seems to be that grandmothers shit and screw and have foul mouths, just the same as everyone else; that we should be shocked or disquieted by this revelation says more about the audience than it does about grandmothers.
And it’s insights like that which elevate this play miles above the domestic comedy it initially appears to be. It isn’t perfect–there are some weird parts (a bit with a knife mystified myself and my guest), some odd choices, a few lines that came out wrong–but it’s a damn good time, and it’s the kind of play that follows you home, whispering in your ear: “I bet you didn’t think of THAT!”
- Holy Mothers plays through August 17th at The Factory Theatre. (125 Bathurst St.)
- All tickets $15. Money-saving passes are available. For more information on ticketing, and to order online, see the festival website.
- Remaining performances: Monday August 12, 12:30 pm; Tuesday August 13, 5:30 pm; Thursday August 15, 8:00 pm; Friday August 16, 5:30 pm; Saturday August 17, 3:00 pm.
Photograph of (left to right) Lorna Wilson, Astrid van Wieren and Vickie Papavs provided by the company.