Carole Frechette’s “The Four Lives of Marie” is another in a long line of Quebecois plays that, even in translation, transmit a heightened realism and fluid physicality that stamp them as uniquely French-Canadian.
And judging from the Quebec plays that have made it to the rest of Canada, this one is right up there with the best. Yet, strangely, “The Four Lives of Marie” has never received a French-language production — the Tarragon version, with its John Murrell translation, is the world premiere.
Delicately and imaginatively directed by Jackie Maxwell, “Marie” is about a series of deaths and rebirths, a transformative cycle in which Marie is repeatedly killed spiritually and psychically, only to find another life enriched by the knowledge of the one that went before. The characters around her also grow into their next existences, some having learned their lessons, others doomed to repeat the cycle.
Marie’s father, who deserted her as a child, returns from his journey only to die and then re-emerge as a married man who rejects Marie’s advances. Her mother also sets out on a voyage of self-discovery, leaving 11-year-old Marie to fend for herself. She turns up again as Marie’s best friend, a twitchy woman who has the uncanny ability to see through lies. And Marie’s terrorist boyfriend is reincarnated as a nutritionist.
This theme of rebirth is occasionally acted out in nonsensical or symbolic fashion. But regardless of how far Frechette veers toward the ludicrous or remote, she always pulls back enough to let the audience re-connect emotionally or intellectually. And just as Marie drags herself back from the brink time and time again via her rich inner fantasy life, so too does Frechette offer the redemptive magic of storytelling.
Maxwell’s fine production, starring Tanja Jacobs as Marie, shows the text off to advantage. Sue LePage’s stunning set, featuring an oval platform surrounded by wooden runways and chain-link fences, creates a world that hovers somewhere between the unreal and the real, as does Paul Mathiesen’s moody lighting.
The cast, in particular Jacobs, infuses the complex story with tremendous energy, wit and emotion, but in the end it’s the images, such as a final scene in which Jacobs is suspended in midair in a rowboat, stroking her way to death, freedom and yet a fifth life, that provide the haunting core of this evocative play.