Tomson Highway’s The (Post) Mistress is a cheeky musical whose disarming humour, magnetic lead actor, and jazzed up score sweeten its strong political and cosmological message; namely, that of the Aboriginal circle as a form of social organization, where everyone and everything strives for respectful coexistence.
Patricia Cano stars as Marie-Louise Painchaud, a gracefully hard-edged Métis postmistress in the fictional village of Lovely, Ont., who discovers she can read people’s letters without opening the envelopes. Indulging in this skill reveals how her village falls short of living up to its name. She relays the latest news about her neighbours and friends’ separations, affairs, royal mess-ups and sundry deceits with the self-righteous authority of good gossip and a singing voice that could harmonize the sulk out of the lowliest among us.
Cano’s performance lends glamour to the hard work of maintaining healthy relationships, including Painchaud’s own, and to the tragedies unchecked desires can lead to. Her best letter, the one about Ariel from Argentina, sees her channel the depths of infatuated love in a lusty daydream so unrestrained you may forget to breathe from a busted gut. She uses her voice to make precise grunts and chuckles, and oddly pronounces certain words to get laughs consistent with Highway’s funnier punchlines.
Despite her conservative worldview and blunt opinion about what she doesn’t like, Painchaud never casts away any letter writer; each writer is part of her community first and foremost. Their deviations from the traditional paths of lovers and parents are not surprises worthy of outrage so much as sources of fascination. Supported by Highway’s glimmering piano accompaniment, and the velvet grooves of Marcus Ali on saxophone, Cano weaves together stories of villagers who struggle to manage their desires in a world that demands they suppress them, and who are no less worthy of love because of the mistakes they’ve made.
Highway composed the book and lyrics in English, French and Cree, traversing through the music of these linguistic traditions with the glee of a child in a sea of lettered blocks. As a songwriter, he offers poetic images with a Tin Pan Alley straightforwardness, finding substance in popular song structure. As a playwright, he builds Painchaud’s character out of the tension between her need for love and her willingness to selflessly wish it on the letter writers. Her struggle with this tension should embolden any practicing humanists in need of faith renewal.
The otherworldly twist of the second act, delivered so matter-of-factly, is a testament to the flights Highway’s lawless imagination can so easily have us believe.
Directed by John Van Burek and co-produced by Pleiades Theatre and Théâtre Français de Toronto, The (Post) Mistress plays at the Berkeley Street Theatre (upstairs) until Nov. 6. For more information, visit http://theatrefrancais.com/shows/the-post-mistress/