Who knew that making light of the Irish potato famine could be so funny?
Why it is so, in the hands of Moira Sauer and Katherine McCallum in the current Sour Brides/Guild co-production, Boston Marriage, is a bit hard to pin down.
Partial credit, of course, goes to David Mamet’s script. The playwright has built a career on penning characters with cynical, street-smart speech.
But rather than being preoccupied with Mamet’s usual gruff guys, Boston Marriage focuses on a lesbian couple, circa 1900.
Much of the play’s humour flows from the tension between its characters’ high-flown diction and the bawdy subject matter they discuss.
The schtick isn’t much different from television’s South Park: cartoons of small children saying crass things is funny because it’s unexpected; the same goes with hearing a pair of late-Victorian-era women use antique terms of abuse like “ill-conditioned sow” and “pagan slut.”
But there’s more to it than that. The script could easily be mistaken for being relentlessly grim on the page, but it isn’t in the hands of Sauer and McCallum.
Sauer rages about the potato famine to razz her slightly-daft maid, ably played by Arabella Bushnell, for no other reason than she dared enter the room.
No matter that the maid is Scottish.
“What is it?” asks Sauer with deadpan astonishment. “What do you want? Saving national sovereignty and reparations? An apology for your potato famine? It came from a lack of rotation of your crops! Do you hear? From a depletion of…”
“Nitrogen,” chips in McCallum.
It’s funny because Sauer’s rage is completely out of proportion to her perceived slight. Think of the comic actor John Cleese: the angrier he gets, the funnier he is.
But that’s not quite right, either, because the play’s fury isn’t mere slapstick.
Beneath its snarky commentary (“You look like a plate of cold stew”), witty rejoinders (“Have you taken a vow of arrogance?”) and sexual innuendo (with plenty of references to beards and muffs) are complicated negotiations between Sauer and McCallum over the rules of their relationship.
Sauer plays Anna, who’s recently become the mistress of a wealthy man in order to comfortably provide for Claire, played by McCallum. But Claire’s fallen in love with a young woman, whom she wants to seduce with the help of Anna.
It’s the emotional undercurrents beneath the drama that make both characters likable, for all of their nastiness.
Anna, who dismisses the Crimean War as “just one of those things,” uses blitheness as a shield. (As Claire later says: “You mean to denigrate my loss, by your display of equanimity in the face of your own.”)
Both take a dim view of men. “What can one do with them?” asks Claire in the opening scene. “Just the one thing,” replies Anna, who also tells us, on two occasions, that “men live to be deceived.”
This defiance helps make both women appealing. Their standing on the fringes of upper-class society is tenuous, depending on Claire’s charms. And both are aware that beauty is a perishable good.
McCallum, who plays a character that begins as fragile, anxious and high-strung, could have been overshadowed by Sauer’s boisterousness on stage. But that isn’t so.
As the play progresses, Claire dishes as well as Anna. (Responding to Anna’s assertion that she’s not the older of the two, Claire shoots back: “What? Have they repealed the calendar?”)
Both provoked hoots of laughter during a sold-out Saturday show.
The program includes a cheat-sheet for some of the more obscure words used in the play. (Rodomontade: boastful or inflated talk or behaviour.)
But you don’t need to possess a wide-ranging, Victorian-period vocabulary to enjoy the show. It’s considerably easier to follow than Shakespeare.
At most, the obscure slang leaves the audience wondering whether certain expressions are dirty. (They are.)
The play continues until December 3. All shows are at 8 p.m. Tickets are available at Whitehorse Motors and at the door.
There’s a pay-what-you-can performance tonight. Otherwise, they’re $20 from Tuesday to Thursday and $22 on Friday and Saturday.
The production is also touring to Dawson City for a special presentation at the Odd Fellows Hall on Monday, November 28.
Contact John Thompson at