The program for "Les Belles Souers" ("The Sisters-in-Law" though this phrase also translates as "the beautiful sisters"), Michel Tremblay's play now at the Fells Point Corner Theater, features a detailed explanation of the history behind this 1960s French Canadian play and how it was translated and reset for 1963 Baltimore by Director Richard Barber and Assistant Director/Dramaturg Kate Bishop.
Bishop describes "Les Belles Soeurs" as a "proletariat brick thrown through the staiNed Glass window of the Canadian theater," reflecting a move from religious and morality-type plays toward something violently new even as Quebec was asserting its independence from foreign entanglements during the so-called "Quiet Revolution" of the 1960s.
Yes, it's interesting how this play challenged social standards and mores of the time, the meticulous work of Bishop and Barber to transport the sisters-in-law and their neighbors (the play features a 15-member cast) from Quebec to Bawlmer, hon, requiring "more care than simply changing 'eh?' to 'huh?' and slapping a layer of Formstone on top." Indeed. But while the result was earth-shattering and trail-blazing 50 years ago, that electric sense of experiencing something revolutionary has faded.
Watching "Les Belles Soeurs" is like akin to taking in an old film that you remember as unsettling and attention-grabbing when you were younger...but now feels, well, "been there-done that."
This approximately 2-hour, 2-act play revolves around Germaine (Helenmary Ball) who has had the good fortune to win one million S&H green stamps (Gold Star stamps in the original play; like the S&H variety, such stamps could be pasted into booklets and exchanged for all manner of household goods). To facilitate the process of getting the stamps in the booklets, she calls upon her neighbors to help. The result is akin to placing 15 cats in a burlap bag.
"Les Belles Soeurs" isn't a comedy...or if it is, it's about the blackest comedy in the history of theater. It's not exactly your typical drama either; more a study of middle-class hypocrisy, family dysfunction with a dash of elderly abuse that takes place on a stage, nicely decorated to look like a Fells Point rowhome kitchen prior to President Kennedy's assassination (I particularly liked the home's entrance made to look like formstone, and the screen painting of the old Colts logo). It might even be a morality play, teaching us such lessons as "judge not, lest ye be judged" and "money is the root of all evil."
"Les Belles Soeurs" represents an enormous amount of work for the actors, director and crew; the large ensemble cast flows well on stage; there's multiple changes in music (the "radio" plays everything from pop to the midday Mass as the women drop to the linoleum, on their knees in prayer), there's even a nicely choreographed scene with the entire cast declares their undying love of "bingo" through song and dance.
Helenmary Ball is masterful as the materialistic, screeching, wicked-witch-of-Fells-Point Germaine who has substituted S&H stamps for Ruby Slippers and must deal with an insurrection by the bevy of flying monkeys (her neighbors) who dare steal her precious treasure, shoveling stamps into their purses. If there's a Dorothy in this backward Oz, it might be Kate Shoemaker's Paulette, the youngest of the four sisters (Ann Marie Feild as Rose and Hillary Mazer as Gabby, each excellent in their harridan-hon roles) who dared defy the image of "a good Catholic girl" to take a job in "a club," the perceived anteroom to Hell itself. It is Paulette who attempts to help a young girl who is seeking an abortion, and it is she who is offers a helping hand to Germaine at play's end when all around have abandoned her, including her own daughter, Linda (Kelly Cavanaugh).
Sprinkled throughout the play are brief, spotlighted monologues by several of the characters, each "Greek chorus"-style piece designed to give insights into why each character is the way she is. Particularly touching are Ann Shoemaker's Blanche, who describes in great detail the pains and pangs of loneliness, and Virginia Frank's Angeline, who must face choosing between her best friend and the happiness she has found at Paulette's club, "laughing for the first time in 50 years." Despite the air kisses and proferred smiles, there is very little that's beautiful about these ladies; by play's end, it's "Lord of the Flies" with middle-aged women substituting for adolescent boys.