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The (Post) Mistress

Review by Jane Ledwell

“You see how these letters enter my heart!” laughingly laments post-mistress Marie-Louise Faucon, played by Martha Irving. The one-woman musical The (Post) Mistress by Tomson Highway is playing at the Victoria Playhouse where the audience can, indeed, see precisely how letters enter the small-town Ontario postmistresses’ heart and life, in a visually and musically satisfying production centred on an unmissable, tour-de-force solo performance by Irving.

Set in 1968 when people wrote letters, the arrival of mail in the fictional town of Lovely, Ontario, prompts Marie-Louise to read through the envelope, intuit, or imagine the contents of her neighbours’ letters and to sing their stories in a series of cabaret songs in English, French, and Cree. Marie is that dear friend you have who comes to tea to drop dozens of names you’ve never heard of and tell outrageous stories.

Gossipy, sexy, funny, odd, and familiar stories of love and heartbreak bring to life the neighbours’ lives, and, ultimately, that of Marie-Louise herself. There is little of life left uncovered in the songs — love, loss, betrayal, reconciliation, sex, and as Marie-Louise says with relish, the “blood, guts, and mayhem” of the human drama.

Whether the letters come from Rio, New Orleans, Trois-Rivieres, Val d’Or, Toronto, Buenos Aires, Saskatchewan, Montreal, Gatineau, or across town in Lovely, they are filled with affection, humour, or grief and are all, in one sense or another, love letters. They demonstrate how one heart is connected to another and one small town is connected to the much larger world.

When I interviewed Martha Irving last month, she told me why in her view PEI and Canada need more Tomson Highway. She said that Highway is “unlike anyone I’ve ever met. He has had a tumultuous life and chooses to live in the present, in the positive things… and he loves to hear people laugh.” Highway left theatre for a while and wrote a lot of cabaret songs he was unsure what to do with. “Then he got talking to a gossipy postmistress in Ontario,” she told me with a wink, “and thought, now I can put the songs together.” The play was ultimately a birthday present for his partner, she says, and so “it comes from a beautiful place of love.”

Irving said to me, “Judi Dench famously said she would never perform in a one-woman show,” — “I wouldn’t do a one-woman show. It would be death for me. I would not know who to get ready for,” Dench said — and Irving said, “I would have thought myself the same way.” But her love for the character of Marie-Louise Faucon has brought her back to this glistening staging of The (Post) Mistress, ably directed by Catherine O’Brien, who brings fresh choreography and perspective.

Music by Holly Arsenault and Ken Fornetran is tastefully complementary and never overwhelms Irving’s expressive voice. The versatile and effective set built and painted by Ron Quesnel and Jonathan Smith makes space for a township of characters, and the costume design by Kelly Caseley deserves special mention for its deceiving simplicity. How to fit the loose threads of so many characters’ stories and actions into one pliable costume?

If The (Post) Mistress is more than a slightly kooky assortment of songs and stories of life and love, it reveals its heart in a tender twist near the end that almost integrates the narrative. But Tomson Highway knows life and love are not tidy: they are messy and funny and finite.

All this must be animated by one actor’s performance, and if you love what theatre can do, it would be a disrespect to miss Martha Irving’s captivating, comic virtuoso performance.

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