Monday, October 13, 2014

"Albertine, in Five Times" -- A French-Canadian "Three Tall Women"

Edward Albee's Three Tall Women has been on my mind this past week. Marian Seldes, who starred in its original production, passed away; and my friend and collaborator Katja Rivera will be directing the show next month at the Custom Made Theatre. Browsing the Plays section of a local used bookstore on Friday night, I came across a play I'd never heard of whose premise sounded strikingly similar to that of the Albee play. Of course, I bought and read it... and I'm very glad to have discovered it!
Albertine in Five Times

Albertine in Five Times by Michel Tremblay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The easiest way to describe Albertine, in Five Times might be to call it the French-Canadian equivalent of Three Tall Women. Like Edward Albee's award-winning play, Albertine is a character study of a woman born in the early 20th century, in which multiple actresses play the protagonist at various ages of her life. The five Albertines (plus a sixth actress who plays Albertine's sister, Madeleine) converse with one another across space and time. They argue and accuse and debate the best attitude to take toward life and its hardships. Should you act with rage or with resignation? Blot out the past or confront it?

Although written by a man, Albertine is a fiercely feminist play, full of anger at the limited options that the patriarchal society of mid-century Québec afforded to women. I was also intrigued to learn that Michel Tremblay has written many other plays and novels about Albertine and her extended family, and that they are based on his own relatives. (Does this mean that Tremblay is the French-Canadian August Wilson, rather than its Edward Albee? Tremblay's series is called "Traversée du Siècle" -- Crossing the Century -- while Wilson's plays are the "Century Cycle"...)

In the circles I run in, there are a lot of conversations going on lately about women in theater, feminist-themed plays, the lack of good roles for women in general and for middle-aged or elderly women in particular, etc. Albertine, in Five Times features six powerful roles for women between the ages of 30 and 70, and as such, I think it deserves to be better-known outside of Canada. 40-year-old Albertine is bitter and exasperated; 50-year-old Albertine has turned her back on the past and is determined to make the best of things; 60-year-old Albertine, her past having caught up with her, has started popping pills. Even the 30-year-old Albertine is no ingenue; she's a war widow with an 11-year-old daughter. Each of the five Albertines represents a specific age and a specific point of view. But together, they show us the complexity of this woman's life.

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