Normally I’m skeptical of shows where the writer is also the director, the stage manager and the designer. But Frances Koncan proves no trepidation is necessary. Women of the Fur Trade is a bold ironic piece presented by Winnipeg-based Vault Projects.
Then again, it is also the winner of the Toronto Fringe Festival‘s Best New Play Contest, so it shouldn’t really surprise me that it’s a wickedly subversive comedy about feminism and Louis Riel.
With the first entrance of Eugenia (Joelle Peters), Marie Angelique (Haley Vincent), Cecilia (Elizabeth Whitbread) decked out in their furs, the contrasts are apparent. Each is in a different style of jacket, a different colour of vintage nightgown; each has her own rocking chair to sit in. They are a three-headed beast: the eponymous The Women of the Fur Trade, individuals who have banded together.
During some opening games, the characters speak of Suri Cruise and Shiloh Jolie-Pitt as creating a rift in celebrity culture in 2006 born weeks apart before drawing attention to Riel and his contemporaries. Obviously, the comparison isn’t completely accurate, but that seems intentional.
The playwright has chosen to speak to us with our technological vocabulary about history. Many anachronistic references to unfollowing on Instagram or the twenty-years-earlier AOL “You’ve Got Mail” notification are interspersed with the ladies taking tea and discussing the role of women and wives in Fort Garry, where they live during “18-something something”.
When the ladies introduce the twelve-inch action figures they pull out of their purses to stand in for Louis Riel and Thomas Scott; the audience loses it. The metaphor is clear but hilarious. Although the third doll – with his “sweater made of boyfriend material” – becomes the killer punch line.
Numerous sequences of letter-writing to family and dignitaries – yes, even Riel, as Marie Angelique confesses her love – would likely seem static and dull if not for the strength of Koncan’s characterization and the confidence her staging displays.
To go hunting for their furs, Eugenia uses a door that the other two cannot – or will not – look for. The door apparently keeps moving. Marie Angelique dreams of using it while Cecilia is content to stay indoors. When the door becomes impossible for Eugenia to locate, we know the political situation has changed near the Red River.
Irreverent and relevant, Women of the Fur Trade also dramatizes a darker side as well. Eugenia reveals she’s losing her language, having lived in the fort too long. The Métis Marie Angelique denounces her mother for giving her away at birth. Caucasian Cecilia pines for the “handsome Irishman” Thomas Scott, aware of how her adultery might be viewed in this era.
Each of the actors is praiseworthy, but ultimately they work best as a team, sharply cutting each other off with staccato remarks or silently expressing their emotions as the other two conspire.
The end of the show strikes a heavier – but deservedly so – tone that made me want to jump to my feet with the final line of dialogue. However, the show continued for another half a minute to create a silent image that I didn’t feel was completely necessary.
Firmly tongue-in-cheek, Women of the Fur Trade should be mandatory comedic viewing: Canadian history reinvented and newly explored for our contemporary times.
- Women of the Fur Trade plays at the Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace. (16 Ryerson Ave.)
- Tickets are $13, including a $2 service charge. The festival also offers a range of money-saving passes and discounts for serious Fringers.
- Tickets can be purchased online, by telephone (416-966-1062), from the Festival Box Office at Scadding Court (707 Dundas St. W.), and — if any remain — from the venue’s box office starting one hour before curtain.
- Content Warnings: Mature language; Sexual content; Gunshots.
- This venue is wheelchair-accessible. Accessible seating is in the very front row.
- Be aware that Fringe performances always start exactly on time, and that latecomers are never admitted.
- Thursday July 5th, 8:15 pm
- Saturday July 7th, 12:30 pm
- Sunday July 8th, 5:15 pm
- Monday July 9th, 10:45 pm
- Wednesday July 11th, 1:45 pm
- Friday July 13th, 9:15 pm
- Saturday July 14th, 5:15 pm
Photo of Erica Wilson, Frances Koncan, Erin Meagan Schwartz by Leah Borchert