Spanning over 500 years, Susanna Fournier‘s Empire Trilogy is bold and ambitious, conjuring a richly rendered and compelling world. It is our own world, of course, though distorted, existing across time rather than in it. Set in an alternate universe, this near-future dystopia blends the medieval and contemporary.
I didn’t catch the run of either of the first two parts—The Philosopher’s Wife and The Scavenger’s Daughter—though I have listened to the podcast presentations of both (available on The Empire website). I was fortunate, however, to catch this final instalment at The Theatre Centre. Commissioned by Luminato 2019 and presented by Paradigm Productions, Four Sisters concludes Fournier’s epic examination of oppressive power structures and the ways in which they devalue and exploit people.
At the centre of this final story—set 259 years after the previous instalment—we have Sarah (Bea Pizano), a former madam who has defied death and managed to survive 279 years. In her care are four sisters, the daughters of former sex-workers who died from the plague that has claimed many. This matriarch and her charges (whom she considers her own children) live on the fringes of the city—and society—in a quarantine zone known as “The Skirts.” This is a play on words, as most of the disenfranchised humanity found here is women.
The four sisters (Beah, Abby, Cassie and Dee) are brought to life by Aria Evans, Chala Hunter, Claudia Moore, Jennifer Dahl, Krystina Bojanowski, Virgilia Griffith, Ximena Huizi, and Yolanda Bonnell—portraying them at various ages and highlighting different aspects of their personalities. There are some gloriously transcendent moments where actors seem to exist as emotional projections of each other. In this world, there is a pervading sense of bewilderment as characters leap from one performer to another, their essence—even after death—endures, unmoored from time and space.
Their dynamic is quickly disrupted by the arrival and long-term involvement of a seemingly altruistic, renegade doctor who uses the sisters to test out her cheaper alternative to expensive plague medicine. This fraught relationship challenges all of them and propels the story.
Clad in nearly identical, drab-looking grey sweatsuits, the depressing sameness of them evokes a tangible sense of ghettoization. As each finds their own unique response to systemic oppression—from violent rebellion to drug-induced oblivion—we come to know each of these women and cling to any signs of hope in their rather bleak tale.
With pulsating, hypnotic movement designed by choreographer Amanda Acorn, much of the emotional world-building is achieved without dialogue. Emotions and psychological states are given fleshy substance here, with special care taken to juxtapose individual and communal experience.
In both her writing and direction, Fournier has made this decidedly self-aware. The actors, as themselves, address the audience directly and prepare us for potentially alienating aspects of the production. At key moments, the actors even acknowledge and interact with the mechanics of theatrical presentation.
During much of the performance, a television—hoisted above our heads, looming dreadfully—shows a glitchy compilation of images that flutter between news footage of violent protest and abstracted visuals of natural phenomena. At first, I found myself confused—even slightly irritated—by it, but as I adjusted to its presence, I came to appreciate its peripheral glow, the occasional glimpses it offers into a fragmented, unreliable media presence and an even more unreliable social fabric.
Four Sisters runs two and a half hours and most of it is thoroughly compelling. The plight of these characters in this awful world they inhabit—a devastatingly accurate look at late stage capitalism and its colonial roots—is certainly dismal, but at its core there is playful humour and a defiant spirit that transcends the gloom and hints at our shared potential for a healthier, more inclusive way of life.
Runs from June 11 to June 16, 2019
At The Theatre Centre (1115 Queen St. W)
Visit the show page for tickets and info