Part of Soulpepper’s Her Words Festival, the latest work from playwright/director Kat Sandler is a historical epic full of wild details too unbelievable to not be true.
Set in the 16th century French court on a stunning Nick Blais-designed set, Wildwoman tracks Catherine de’ Medici (a compelling Rose Napoli with a very tricky job) as she evolves from the naive young wife of an infantile prince to the ruthless queen who lives in infamy as the (alleged) architect of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Catherine’s arc away from obedience places her among great company as Gabriella Sundar Singh and Rosemary Dunsmore fill out the play’s trio of outspoken women who dare to behave outside of expectation. Meanwhile, the play’s two men are monstrous mirrors of each other- Tony Ofori hides deep wounds beneath a high flying comedy performance as Catherine’s outrageous husband, as dangerous as he is silly; Dan Mousseau, in contrast, plays the production’s purest heart while billed as a beast.
I love Sandler in rom-com mode so it’s great fun when Wildwoman pitches Pete as the ultimate heartthrob. At the high point of act one on opening night, it was hard to hear the dialogue above the audience’s swoony sighs over a hair-covered “wildman” based on the very real story of Petrus Gonsalvus who was brought to King Henry’s court as an exotic pet and married off to Catherine’s lady-in-waiting (Singh, as utterly vibrant as ever). If that sounds like an unlikely dreamboat, how well it works is a testament to Mousseau’s lovely earnest performance, as well as the charm of Sandler’s dialogue and the generational insight of her storytelling (Gen X had their bad boys, Millennials just want someone to be nice to them). Act one flies by, a blur of fun banter, longing looks, and simmering sadness that never needs to be said out loud to hurt all the same.
Act two gets down to business with a lot more plot, far fewer jokes, and Catherine’s dramatic turn towards the dark side. Though the tonal shift is necessary to match the true-to-life arc of the story, the hard break of intermission and the sudden time jumps through the second half send the play lightyears away from act one very quickly. The result is that Wildwoman feels a bit like two plays stitched together rather than a steady descent. With such different tones, different genres even, the two acts feel as though they serve different audience members, leaving some of the audience behind around intermission but also picking up a few who’d been tolerating the banter to get to the murder.
Sandler’s work always sings when she gets the chance to develop a play with a really good cast whose voices she understands, tweaking the writing with the play on its feet in the rehearsal room as she directs her own work. Soulpepper is the first major company that has managed to capture in a large scale production the collaborative magic and energy that made her indie productions so special. Wildwoman could use a tad more nuance in its principal character arc and tonal shift but, as is, it’s two of the best plays Kat Sandler’s ever written.