The story of Esther Brandeau is a fascinating one: as a young French Jewish woman she immigrated to Quebec at a time when women were not allowed to travel alone by pretending to be Christian man named Jacques La Fargue. Whether or not Esther identified as queer, or whether she (or he or they) took on a man's identity out of necessity alone is unclear and impossible to know. To its credit, the play does not attempt to answer this question, and uses pronouns interchangeably (in the program notes, as well).
Unfortunately, ribcage: this wide passage felt less about Brandeau's journey than the playwright's – large chunks of time are dedicated to Hermant's musings on the importance of history and storytelling, her exploration of and fascination with Brandeau's story, and the impossibility of her research. Hermant opts to present just-the-facts and questions, and as a result there is a dearth of content, which the play tries to stretch with a surplus of style. In 70 minutes ribcage includes poetry, dance, music, film installation, and academic lecture (or “archival narration”). It's simultaneously over- and underwhelming.
The music (by fiddler Jaron Freeman-Fox) and the video projection (by artist Kaija Siirala) are the strongest elements of the play, and complemented by excellent use of light and shadow. The long, unexplained musical interludes between "scenes" were buoyed by Freeman-Fox's and Siirala's talents. However, the choreography fell flat and I found my eyes drawn to the screens instead of the performance. The one exception was the scene where Brandeau takes on their male identity, dressing herself in Jacques's clothes slowly. Through aggressive, almost violent, dance, Hermant conveys what can be interpreted as a struggle with identity or with the patriarchal powers that forced Esther Brandeau to adopt a male identity – or both. The whole bit goes on a lot longer than I would have liked, but it was an interesting moment.
I have no doubts about Hermant's talent as a poet on the page, but as a performance I found her work too dense. While I love theatre, I generally prefer to read, not listen to, poetry and prose – ardent fans of performance poetry will get more out of this than I did.
ribcage: this wide passage plays at the Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver until March 8, 2015