At the Arts Club BMO Theatre Centre (162 West 1st Avenue) until February 28, 2016
Posted February 11, 2016
She’s short and buxom and has a pair of lungs that puts the roof on the new Arts Club’s Goldcorp theatre to the test. She is Patricia Cano; she sings in four languages – English, French, Cree and Spanish; she comes loaded with credentials and has a wild and crazy comedic edge. Making an immediate connection with the audience by noticing we’re there, sitting in the dark (“What are you doing here? How long have you been watching me?”), Cano is an amazingly warm and generous performer. And then there’s that fabulous voice, too.
The (Post) Mistress, written by Cree writer Tomson Highway, a musician as well as a writer, has been working with Sudbury, Ontario-born Cano for more than a decade. According to Cano’s website, she and Highway have been touring the world together, performing his songs and stories in cabaret form.
In this Arts Club production, directed by John Cooper, the Goldcorp Stage has been configured to include a few cabaret tables in front of the regular theatre seating. Without a liquor licence, however, the cabaret tables seem to lack something: alcohol, to be precise, and whatever else it is that cabaret tables bring to a performance. A relaxed, night-out atmosphere?
In many respects, I would rather have seen Cano and Highway in a club, performing songs together than in The (Post) Mistress that tries – too hard, especially in Act 1 – to string the music along a narrative line. In The (Post) Mistress, we meet Cano – as Marie-Louise Painchaud of Lovely, Ontario (population 2000) – on Ted Roberts’ Canada Post office-ish set: stacks of mail ‘cubbyholes’ into which Marie-Louise is stuffing letters. At stage right are Bill Sample (musical director) on piano and Bill Runge on saxophone and flute. Stairs, stage left, reach up almost into the flies.
The frame on which Highway hangs this tale is that Marie-Louise knows everyone in town: all the affairs, the broken marriages, the soon-to-break-up relationships, and the spicy indiscretions. We’re not quite sure how she knows all the latest gossip but she does hold the letters up to the light or her nose (“Old Spice”, she dreamily enthuses) so we assume that’s how. Somehow, she does get all the juicy tidbits and, with her marriage to Rollie in the doldrums, she fantasizes all the romancing everyone else is enjoying. Cano, choreographed by Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg, dances and sings with every letter.
And there’s the rub. Not too far into the show you begin to wonder if all 2,000 residents of Lovely, Ontario have a letter waiting for them. And although the music is varied – hot and sexy, blue and ballad-y – the format begins to feel formulaic. Take a letter, sing a song, next letter.
Act 2, however, opens with a number that shows just how physically funny Cano can be. It seems that most of these Ontarians are having affairs with men and women from Rio de Janeiro (“Where they only wear dental floss it’s so hot”, says Marie-Louis) or Brazil or somewhere where the weather and the music are hot as chili peppers. Yvette Paquette (“with the big hair”), for example, is having an affair with a black guy from New Orleans who’s “black as a smokestack and as thin as linguine”. Someone else is getting it on with a linguistic professor who speaks nearly two dozen languages including Spanish. All of this gives Highway, Cano and the onstage musicians an opportunity for a wide range of musical styles. To some extent, it gives us a window on Marie-Louise but not enough to really engage us. But Cano is hilarious in this number that ends up orgasmically on the post office sorting table. Whew.
You can have too much of a good thing, though. The (Post) Mistress goes on past a couple of places that feel like it’s over. Just when you think Cano is wrapping it up, Marie-Louise picks yet another letter.
But the show has a surprising twist that I doubt anyone saw coming – and a surprise is always a treat. Highway throws a whole lot of stuff in at the end: peace and love and great mirth and loving the earth. Without Cano, The (Post) Mistress could wind up undeliverable. With Cano, it’s entertaining but would thrive in a cabaret setting with a glass of something red and full-bodied. Sort of like Cano herself.
Note: some selected performances will feature Cailin Stadnyk in place of Patricia Cano. That promises to be quite a different show.