Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
Don’t tell anyone…but Patricia Cano enjoys a bit of gossip.
So does Tomson Highway.
Gossip lies at the heart of Highway’s beloved one-woman musical The (Post) Mistress/Zesty Gopher s’est fait écraser par un frigo, premiering in Toronto as a co-production by Pleiades Theatre and Theatre français de Toronto. Featuring Cano in the title role and Highway on the piano, The (Post) Mistress takes place in the fictional Northern-Ontario farming village of Lovely, on the edge of mining town Complexity, in 1968 – when handwriting letters, not dashing off email, was the norm.
Cano plays the hilarious and heartwarming Marie-Louise Painchaud, the Métis post mistress who minds the village’s sole post office . . . along with everyone else’s business. Marie-Louise–or “MLP” as Cano calls her–reads every letter that she sorts–right through the envelope! How? That is answered…eventually. Until then, Marie-Louise gleefully dishes up her neighbours’ secrets through words and cabaret-style songs in English, French and Cree.
The play began as a collection of songs that Highway composed as a birthday gift for his life partner. But Cano’s is the voice he wrote them for. She explains, “I rehearsed the songs, and Tomson produced a cabaret event in Sudbury, ON (where I am from), at the Théâtre du Nouvel-Ontario. The play came later.” Asked “did he write it for me?” she deflects the question: “I think he wrote a world in which his new songs could live, for future generations of singers and actors to bring to life. Because he is a playwright, and that is his thing, no?”
Although Marie-Louise has been played by other actresses, Cano has portrayed her in 5 different productions, as well as the 2015 Juno-Award-nominated CD. The current dual-language run yields a new challenge: performing the role in French for the first time. Despite knowing the songs so well, and being multilingual, she admits that “it has been challenging to lift off in French.” And despite having portrayed Marie-Louise as recently as earlier this year in different productions in Saskatoon and Vancouver, her “memory (body and mind)” is anchored in the English text. It’s “not impossible, of course,” she says, speaking of her French-language performance. “All is good. I enjoy this sort of challenge very much. I am an actor, after all, no?”
Innately gracious, Cano rhymes off the other actors with whom she’s shared the role, sometimes within the same run:
“Perhaps there are others?” she muses. “Most certainly there WILL be others! . . .Tomson penned a play that will hopefully be performed all over Canada and beyond, by very talented actors who are not me.”
As someone who knows the role intimately, she offers this advice to those future actors who will someday undertake the (Post) Mistress: “Marie-Louise Painchaud is full of love for everyone she talks about, whose letters pass through her hands, for all who live in her town. Remember that: tap into that part of yourself (where your love and concern for people around you lives most warmly). And let it loose.” She also acknowledges the importance of trusting the director, as she reflects on how her various directors have helped her mine for deeper humanity over the course of the five productions. “I have improved my performance with each new director, for certain,” she stresses.
In speaking with Cano, it is obvious why Highway would have held her voice (along with her affable personality) in his mind when creating the buoyant Marie-Louise. An accomplished singer as well as actor, she engages in conversation easily, ruminating freely and at length about her love for this play, her facility with languages (she can speak Spanish, French, English, Portuguese, Italian, some Cree, and a smattering of Korean) as well as language’s inherent power to connect people, “a key to understanding each other, to revealing our connective tissue.”
Cano’s taste for learning new languages is a direct result of her desire to connect to people and places. She recalls growing up as a period of not “fitting in,” yet knowing that she belonged…intuiting uniqueness within that sense of “other.” “I belonged where I was,” she recalls, “despite not ‘fitting in’ (skin colour, language, size, etc). From where I stood, I knew I was different, but I knew that people around me were different, too. And I became addicted to getting to know and understand those differences.” She realized that language would lead her to adopt “many families and cultures that way, or be adopted by many….Expanding my Canadian family, ‘my people’. And this is exactly what happened.”
In reflecting on her long relationship with Highway, one of Canada’s most esteemed playwrights, authors and composers, she confides, “we are like family, Tomson and I, so love is at the heart of our collaborations. “And,” she emphasizes, “it’s of the reciprocal kind. Respect and admiration for his work, his mind, his writing, and the same in return for my way of expressing, spoken or sung, his words.” Given their shared love of words, it’s easy to understand just why their partnership has endured so fruitfully: a reciprocal respect grounded in mutual love of language, and confidence in the infinite power and artfulness of words to express, connect, and move.
As for the audience who come to see The (Post) Mistress, especially the young people, Cano hopes that they will leave the theatre feeling “hopeful, high on life and love, as well as grounded. Grounded in the importance of caring for those around us, especially those who care most for us. The play is poignant that way.” Genuinely warm, she invites such young people to come right up and interact with her. Asked what she would like them to know, she quickly responds, “language is key.” She elaborates by noting the importance of “saying yes to change, to feeling uncomfortable, to not ‘fitting in’. Because we do not fit in. No one fits anywhere; any one mold or language is not for all,” she avers. “So young people, being young and having time ahead of them, I think should embrace the mess of it all, learn languages, expand their body and musical language skills, too, and meet people here and there and everywhere, on their turf.”
Good advice. It seems that “love and concern” for people — not mere gossip — is a quality that Cano shares with her character Marie-Louise. In both their hearts lies a desire to connect and interact, to revel in the possibility of difference, and to stay curious about a diversity of thoughts and ideas. Theirs is an innate compassion that they can’t help but let loose. And this, ultimately, is what makes Cano such an iconic and endearing (Post) Mistress.
In any language.
News You Can Use
What: The (Post) Mistress / Zesty Gopher s’est fait écraser par un frigo by Tomson Highway; directed by John Van Burek; with Patricia Cano, Tomson Highway and Marcus Ali
Who: Audiences 10 and up
When: October 12 – 23 (French, with English Surtitles); October 25 – November 6 (English, with French Surtitles)
Where: Berkeley Street Theatre (Upstairs), 26 Berkeley Street, Toronto. ON
For info and Tickets: 416.534.6604 or TheatreFrancais.com
© 2016 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya