by Moira Buffini
shameless hussy productions
Performance Works, Granville Island
January 26-February 5

The shameless hussies have long been one of my favourite Vancouver companies. With their mandate to "tell provocative stories about women, to inspire the hand that rocks the cradle to rock the world," they maintain a feminist political edge that's doubly welcome in the de-politicized atmosphere of local theatre today. Initially creating their own plays about tough women from the past like Calamity Jane and Bonnie (of Clyde fame), the company has recently produced works by other playwrights--Daniel MacIvor's Marion Bridge, Moira Buffini's Loveplay--that seem chosen more on the basis of their good female roles than their politics. With Buffini's Silence, the Canadian premiere of a play originally commissioned by Britain's National Theatre, the hussies return to "herstory," the tale of a long-forgotten British Queen from 1000 AD.

To help counter the Viking threat, Ymma (Daune Campbell) has been sent, against her will, from Normandy to the England of King Ethelred (Anthony F. Ingram) to make a marriage of political convenience with Lord Silence of Cumbria (Renée Iaci). Ymma's unhappiness deepens when she discovers that Ethelred is a weepy wimp and Silence a slight boy of 14. But all is not as it seems. Silence turns out in fact to be a girl. And after a baroque series of sexual developments that also involve Roger the jolly priest (Malcolm Scott), Ymma's servant Agnes (Deb Pickman) and Ethelred's soldier Eadric (Ian Butcher), Ymma ends up with both Ethelred and Silence, as well as some autonomy and power.

Initially, Silence seems like a gentle, gender-bending feminist romp in the style of Ann-Marie McDonald's Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet). At the same time the cardboardish castle set, the arch dialogue ("What a dump!" says Ymma when she first arrives in the kingdom), and the somewhat cartoonish acting style all evoke the ambience of Theatre for Young Audiences. But the play's dark notes develop into a counterpoint of metaphysics and murder. Ethelred becomes a monstrous Caligula-like tyrant, instituting a holocaust, torturing a priestess to death. The shifts in tone, as Buffini tries to maintain the sex farce and holocaust drama simultaneously, are jarring to say the least.

Director Michael Schaldemose exacerbates the serious script problems by failing to find a style to accommodate Buffini's juxtaposition of the profound and silly. And some sloppy, unfocused blocking makes it even harder for the audience to digest the play's mixed messages. Performances are uneven too, with the men, ironically, coming off better than the women. Butcher's brooding Eadric and Scott's sweetly comic priest take home the acting honours along with Pickman's straight-talking servant girl. Ingram handles Ethelred's transition from potsy to Nazi about as well as could be. But I found Campbell's Ymma too obsessively morose to care about. And no real chemistry develops between her and Iaci's Silence, who remains lightweight right to the end. A feminist play built around a hero(ine) named Silence would be a tough nut to crack under any circumstances.

Jerry Wasserman


last updated: Sunday, January 30, 2005 3:33 PM
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