March 27, 2017

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The Arts

Fight for survival in 1542

Gripping drama Elle brings outdoor hardship to PTE's indoor stage

<p>Jonathan Fisher and Severn Thompson in the PTE play Elle.</p>

LEIF NORMAN

Jonathan Fisher and Severn Thompson in the PTE play Elle.

The medium of theatre doesn't necessarily lend itself to a story of survival in the wilderness.

There's a reason The Revenant was a movie and not a Broadway play.

And yet the historical drama Elle, an adaptation of the Governor General’s Award-winning novel by Douglas Glover of the same name by Toronto actress Severn Thompson, manages to be an engaging, gripping piece of work... even in the civilized Prairie Theatre Exchange environs in Portage Place.

<p>Actress Severn Thompson portrays Elle, a woman marooned on the Isle of Demons, in Elle.</p>

LEIF NORMAN

Actress Severn Thompson portrays Elle, a woman marooned on the Isle of Demons, in Elle.

Over the course of 90 minutes (without intermission), Thompson connects us to an extraordinary character, based on Marguerite de la Rocque de Roberval, a headstrong young Frenchwoman tantalized to a trip to Canada in 1542 by exotic tales of naked natives and strange customs.

She is herself given to pretty outrageous behaviour, specifically seducing a tennis-playing dandy aboard ship to distract her from a tormenting toothache.

Her uncle, a nobleman who became the first Lieutenant-General in New France in the time of Jacques Cartier, is sufficiently offended by his niece's behaviour. He has her marooned on the Isle of Demons off the coast of Labrador, a virtual death sentence, with only her tennis-playing lover and her elderly servant for company.

What follows is a fight for survival, but in the absence of actual wilderness, the woman's struggle is depicted on an elegant set (production design by Jennifer Goodman) with a length of cloth standing in for a shelter or a polar bear, and tricks of lighting and sound suggestive of catastrophes such as falling through ice.

What makes it work as well as it does is that Thompson puts the narrative inside her heroine's head. She comes to this new country with a completely inadequate dictionary of Indian words written by Cartier himself. By the time she meets a real native, an Inuit hunter named Itslk (Jonathan Fisher), she achieves equibilibrium with him because he understands the woman's new lexicon of dreams and visions as well as he happens to understand French.

The upshot of the play an be glibly summarized: You don't inhabit the land; the land inhabits you.

But that would diminish the richness of the work, and especially of the character, brought to vivid life by Thompson's performance, alternately comic, tragic, and bracingly primal.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

Read more by Randall King.

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