First making waves with his musical about Canada’s residential schools with Children of God last year, Corey Payette is back with another historical Canadian offering in Les Filles Du Roi.
This year, Payette has joined forces with Julie McIsaac to tell the story of Kateri, a young Mohawk girl and her brother, Jean-Baptiste, whose lives and way-of-living are thrown into chaos with the arrival of les filles du roi in the New France in 1665.
Les Filles Du Roi is largely told through the eyes of the two siblings, and that of Marie-Jeanne, one of 800 young women sent to New France as part of a program sponsored by Louis XIV to boost New France’s population. The trio become inextricably linked as Jean-Baptiste and Marie-Jeanne fall in love, and a friendship develops between Kateri and the new arrival.
But there is more here than just the predictable love story. Payette and McIsaac (who also plays Marie-Jeanne) throw in an oddly placed flashback of the filles du roi’s journey to New France, Kateri struggles with becoming her people’s next Clan Mother, there are scenes of inevitable Christian conversion, clashes with the French soldiers, and even a little espionage.
While these various story points may be valid parts of the experience of the time, with so much going on, in this relatively quick 90-minutes, many only just brush the surface.
Which begs the question, are they all necessary? It is as if Payette and McIsaac have strung together a number of those Heritage Minutes film shorts that will occasionally pop-up on television. Les Filles Du Roi would definitely benefit from an editor.
Les Filles Du Roi also feels at times somewhat Disney-fied, especially with its predictable love story, and in its somewhat sanitized look and feel. Even in some of the more dramatic moments, including a young girl who throws herself from the ship rather than endure the abuses, it never feels authentically dark. This is very much a PG or arguably R-rated story desperately trying to maintain a more accessible, and child-friendly, G-rating.
Adding to the complexity is a story told in three languages: English, French and Kanien’kéha (Mohawk). While intriguing and historically accurate, the placement of surtitles on either side of the proscenium makes it difficult to follow what was happening on stage, and simultaneously understand what is being said or sung. This was especially true as all three languages are used almost interchangeably, requiring the audience (unless you are lucky enough to know more than one language) to move from stage to surtitles, and back again, in any given moment.
Despite its ambition, there are some wildly successful elements to Les Filles Du Roi, especially in Marshall McMahen’s design and costumes (with help from Konwahonwá:wi Stacey for the beautiful beadwork on the First Nations clothing).
Most successful are McMahen’s costumes which become an integral part of the musical. On a couple of occasions, the women’s costumes are almost magically transformed to those of soldiers and the indigenous Mohawk. It is absolutely breathtaking to watch.
There are some strong performances here as well. As the young Kateri, Kaitlyn Yott is a joy to watch, and Raes Calvert is grounded as her brother, Jean-Baptiste. McIsaac has a gorgeous voice and does some nice work here too, although the pain she should feel never quite registers. And it is difficult to ignore Chelsea Rose’s transformation to Clan Mother, and in one of the most successful songs of the evening, “Sken-Nen Gowa (Great Peace)”.
While the chorus is strong, they do get bogged down at times from movement director Patrice Bowler’s repetitive choreography. It is a wonder though, given the small York Theatre stage, how they all managed to perform without colliding into one another.
Along with some fine, but largely forgettable, songs, Payette has composed a discordant score, designed to underpin the confusion and tension between this story’s disparate characters. It is all played with confidence by a quartet on stage, consisting of Rachel Kiyo Iswaasa (music director), Molly MacKinnon, John Kastelic, and Rebecca Wenham. Under Payette’s direction, the four are not only visible throughout, but MacKinnon and Kastelic also become more integrated in a couple of scenes.
It will come as no surprise to know the politics here pit the settlers (bad) against the First Nations people (good). Reduced to its simplest terms, it does ignore the realities of the time. We are much more enlightened today, that was not the case in the 17th century. While it in no way excuses what took place, it does lack a certain historical accuracy.
There is much to like in Les Filles Du Roi, but it at times felt on the verge of collapsing under its own weight. A good dramaturg would definitely help tighten things into what could be a glorious, and important, new Canadian musical.
Les Filles Du Roi with book and lyrics by Corey Payette and Julie McIsaac. Composed and directed by Corey Payette. A Fugue Theatre/Raven Theatre production, in association with Urban Ink and The Cultch. On stage at the York Theatre (639 Commercial Dr, Vancouver) until May 27. Visit https://urbanink.ca for tickets and information.