By Tom McKone Playwright and actor Abby Paige’s one-woman show, “Les Filles du Quoi?,” currently running at Lost Nation Theater, begins with a largely empty stage. A variety of platforms cluster in the middle; a cage hangs behind them; empty clothes lines extend to either side. Paige sings a song in French, followed by a monologue in the same.
For the largely monolingual American audience, the stark stage and opening in French are perhaps confusing and disconcerting, which makes for an engaging way to begin a play that crosses cultures, borders, languages, and time to deal with confusing and disconcerting issues, such as family, identity, ancestry, immigration, and assimilation.
Rich, funny and provocative, the play is moving, entertaining, and not confusing. It is mostly in English, and except for the opening song and monologue, translations of the French lines project onto a screen behind the stage. Paige tells stories from her life and her ancestral family history, and last week at the preview performance — with her warm and charming manner — she quickly developed rapport with the audience.
When the lights come up, Paige is in the cage and tells the story of Marie-Josefte Corriveau, an 18th century Quebecois woman executed by the British because she may have murdered a husband (or two). It is the first of many stories about women that Paige tells, sometimes taking on the persona and sometimes talking about them. Throughout the play, she smoothly brings the past and present together, showing that many of our current concerns are timeless. At one point, for example, she explains why 18th century women “couldn’t have it all.”
Another time, as she returns to center stage to start a new story, the distinctive musical introduction to TED Talks comes over the sound system. The play is peppered with similar extra touches.
A native Vermonter, Paige tells stories of her grandmother and great grandmother and of her own experiences moving to Montreal, only to be shocked to discover that despite her French-Canadian heritage, she was clearly an outsider — an immigrant. She tells humorous stories of how she met her husband (breaking every rule of internet dating) and moving stories about the trials of motherhood. A keen social and cultural observer, Paige is a gifted and witty storyteller with excellent comedic timing.
Paige is very sensitive to the Indigenous peoples who were here before the French and English colonized the region. She respectfully tells stories of the Cree in Canada and the Abenaki in Vermont. People came before borders, she notes; people didn’t cross borders, borders crossed people.
The title of the play may seem puzzling, but after learning a bit of history and seeing the play, it makes perfect sense. Those who speak some French know that “Les Filles du Quoi?” means “The Daughters of What?” Those familiar with Quebecois history may know that it’s a play on the phrase, “les filles du roi” (“the daughters of the king”), which Paige explains in a blog post: “Les filles du roi were a group of about 800 women who were recruited by King Louis XIV to travel to New France between 1663 and 1673 in order to grow the European population of the colony. Today it is a point of pride among many people to trace their heritage to one of these women, the same way there is special prestige among descendants of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in tracing one’s ancestors to the Mayflower.”
Most of the audience at last week’s preview performance were monolingual Vermonters; while they laughed quickly at most of Paige’s jokes, when there was a projection delay for a joke in French, tellingly, only a handful of people laughed before the translation came up. At the end of the play, however, there was no delayed reaction: the audience rose in unison for the ovation.
The 90-minute play is directed by Kim Bent, with scenic design by Claiborne H. Coyle and costume design by Nancy Smith. Smith’s layered, versatile costumes allow Paige to change on stage, which make costume changes transitions rather than interruptions. Early in the play, after moving the cage aside, Paige brings out a laundry basket from which she draws items to hang on the clothes lines as she tells stories; those creations of textile artist Danielle Hogan visually enhance the stage as Paige tells stories. Samuel J. Biondolillo and Jamien L. Forrest handle co-lighting and projections design, and Marissa Mattogno is the stage manager.
“Les Filles du Quoi?” continues at Lost Nation Theater in Montpelier’s City Hall Auditorium through Sunday, June 26. Performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are available on the theater website, lostnationtheater.org or by phone, 802-229-0492.