Before any action unfolds, we are struck by the sight of gold cloth and wood panelling that extends out towards us in a pair of giant antlers. The significance of those arresting protrusions, the highlight of Nick Blais’ set, becomes clear in the final scenes; but just like Catherine de Medici’s tyrannical potential, it lies in wait.
Kat Sandler’s Wildwoman, presented by Soulpepper as part of the Her Words festival, is a mostly hilarious take on the 16th Century French Court of King Henry II. When we first meet Catherine (Rose Napoli), she’s a wide-eyed 14-year-old eager to please, marvelling at unfamiliar social customs and the sheer decadence of royal shenanigans. The cruel indulgence of eating whole an ortolan that’s been drowned in brandy is the first monstrosity she encounters, though—well before this very grotesque tradition pays off—she will acclimate dutifully.
Plucky lady-in-waiting Kitty (Gabriella Sundar Singh) with her mysterious scarred face and Lady Diane de Portier, affectionately called Didi (Rosemary Dunsmore), prepare her for marriage to Henry (Tony Ofori). When he first bounds onto the scene as a rambunctious boy we find him rather endearing despite his obnoxious tendencies. For this first introduction, we can revel in their mutual giddiness, but the charm of guileless adolescence soon wears off.
With his penchant for exotic pets, Henry is gifted a “wildman.” Pete (Dan Mousseau) is a very hairy, endlessly likeable man who arrives as a caged-oddity. He quickly endears himself to all concerned, is given an education and married off to Kitty. A series of Henry’s birthday parties mark the passing years and we discover: Kitty’s desire to rise above her station, Catherine’s need to be more politically active, Henry’s pathetic regal posturing as an arrogant boy playing at being king and his ongoing affair with the much older Didi, his mistress whom he favours, but whose situation isn’t as ideal as it first appears.
The first act is mostly upbeat and explicitly comic in tone. As playwright and director, Sandler paints everything with a modern brush. The dialogue is entirely contemporary which grounds this story within current sensibilities. Michelle Tracey’s costumes are lavish and elegant with period appropriate ruffs and gowns, but you’ll quickly notice anachronistic embellishments like Henry’s bright blue trainers.
The second act takes a sudden, harrowing turn into melodrama. Things get pretty awful for Catherine as her political aspirations—and very personhood—are squashed by Henry. He humiliates her before the court in a brutal declaration that she’s nothing more than a baby-making machine. Things aren’t great for Kitty and Pete either; their children are sold to and traded by nobles as extravagant human pets. (As Sandler quips in her programme note: “You can’t make this shit up.”) Our three women struggle to be people within the constraints of an oppressive system. Though, for the record, Henry isn’t exactly happy; he’s just in power and the pressure to sire an heir squeezes the humanity from him too.
Sandler is very clever and it’s satisfying to catch all the thematic easter eggs she embeds. In this tale of wildness, bestial references abound. Each of these characters have their own monstrous quirks and are all genuinely compelling, with gradual transformations that feel natural and earned. The second act lacks the exhilarating momentum of the first, but all the Sturm und Drang is certainly delicious.
Though some later scenes get a bit tiresome, the finale is absolutely worth the investment. Catherine’s transformation into the cruel monarch of legend is, not just dramatically sound, but truly electrifying in its ominous, cathartic final punch.