When Pelagie, the latest production from Two Planks and a Passion Theatre, opens in Halifax this week, it will be une affaire bilangue.
The show, based on 1979’s Pelagie: La Charrette by author Antonine Maillet (consider her an Acadian Margaret Atwood, if not in terms of subject matter then at least in terms of importance and prolific output), follows Pelagie, “a woman of passion,” from Georgia, where she lands after le Grand Derangement of 1755, back to Acadia.
Maillet won the prestigious French Prix Goncourt for her novel of Acadian heroism, the only Canadian to ever do so. The novel became an English stage show, a musical at that, and played in 2004 in Toronto and Ottawa. Maillet herself translated it into French, and the Two Planks production is the first in both languages.
Which, of course, brings its own challenges. Like finding actors who can toggle between two scripts.
Rejean J. Cournoyer is one such actor. He plays Beausoleil, a captain who purchases the ship in which Pelagie and company were deported. He ferries the displaced Acadians up and down the eastern seaboard, by times crossing paths with Pelagie and eventually falling in love with her.
Though Cournoyer isn’t himself Acadian, he has spent some time in Acadian company. “My father is from Quebec,” he says over the phone from the Two Planks office in Canning. “I grew up in Nova Scotia and went to French school, so I’m sort of an honourary Acadian, because I was around them all my life.”
That ease is standing him in good stead. That and the fact that Cournoyer originated the role of Beausoleil in last year’s Ontario shows. But this time, of course, there’s the two languages thing.
“It’s amazing and rare to do a show in two languages. In rehearsals, you learn blocking and choreography. After a while, you get used to it, it’s called muscle memory. You learn to wrap your body around the show. But this is literally wrapping your body around two performances. The blocking is the same, but the music is different, and you have to tweak your voice a little to make it sit well on a different vowel, in French, but on the same note as in English.”
It’s not just the singing that highlights the ongoing challenges of the two solitudes. “In Toronto, there was absolutely a largely English audience. In Ottawa, and as the show moves east, there’s an increased number of francophones,” Cournoyer says. He adds that while the show was well-received, “especially in Toronto, they weren’t aware of the Acadian story. Unfortunately, most Canadians aren’t.”
But he believes it’s a story well worth telling. “It’s the story of a displaced people, it’s certainly not unique to Acadians. It’s been happening all over history, and even today. We as Canadians rarely tell our own stories. For some reason, we feel our stories are less, or are irrelevant to the world, and they’re certainly not.”
Marie Denise Pelletier is a Quebecoise pop star who plays Pelagie. Unknowingly, she’s long been preparing for her role.
“I’ve been going to the Magdelene Islands for 25 years, and the accent there is probably the oldest Acadian accent,” she says. “So it was in my ears, and I knew their story for a long time. I don’t have any Acadian blood, but it’s in my heart a little bit. And I can understand. This play is talking about survival. In Quebec, we have the same kind of story. We haven’t been deported, but in a way, we survive in the Anglo ocean all around us.”
Pelletier read the book when it came out. She was 19. She recently re-read it, and was surprised at how different it was. “At the time I didn’t know a lot about the story, I was just reading a book, not thinking about it being real. I didn’t realize the Acadians went through this suffering. So when I read it this time, I realize it’s not a ‘real’ real story, but it was at the start. You can feel the emotions there.”
Though Pelletier sometimes struggles to express those emotions in English, she is relishing the challenge of acting on stage in two languages. “I’m learning a lot, still, after 20 years of career,” she says. “I’m kind of a Pelagie myself, I’m a very passionate woman. I don’t like to sit on my laurels, I just want to learn and learn.”
Pelagie, September 8 to 11 at the Rebecca Cohn, 6101 University, 8pm, $24 and $35.