By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“That night I dreamt of the faraway land where the ugly women are loved by the blind men, the men that were the pincushions of cupid’s arrows….” The Ugly Duchess by Janet Munsil
Direct to you from the 14th century, the character we meet in The Ugly Duchess, the solo play by Vancouver-based Janet Munsil that opens Friday streaming digitally as the Northern Light Theatre season finale, is a celebrity of a very particular sort. Margaret, the last Countess of Tyrol, has the peculiar distinction of being memorialized as the ugliest woman in history.
Her nickname Maultasch means “bag mouth,” or “pocket mouth.” During outbreaks of the plague, her subjects had someone, a monster, to blame. The famously grotesque portrait of an extravagantly dressed old woman by Flemish artist Quentin Matsys (c. 1513) hanging in the National Gallery in London is thought to be a depiction of her. And that portrait was the model for the Duchess in the classic Tenniel illustrations for Alice in Wonderland.
The Look, produced by Northern Light earlier this season, explored beauty: the worship of it, the profession of it, the personal (and corporate) implications of it. In The Ugly Duchess, a 1993 multi-Fringe hit, the theatrical gaze turns about-face, on ugliness. We meet a woman who was, in view of her wealth and the Tyrol’s strategic location, one of Europe’s most eligible catches as a bride — except in appearance, that is, if the mythology attached to her has historical legs.
Written originally for the playwright’s husband (actor Paul Terry), and widely produced, travelled, and awarded on both sides of the Atlantic, The Ugly Duchess gets its professional premiere in Trevor Schmidt’s NLT production. It marks the return to the company, after nearly a decade, of Lora Brovold, back to star as the beleaguered, vilified outsider Margaret. In a long and varied resumé of star performances at Edmonton theatres of every size, the Citadel, Shadow, and Theatre Yes included, her history with Northern Light history is a trio of high-intensity plays that are nothing if not visceral.
Brovold’s last appearance with the company 10 years ago was Karen Bassett’s Heroine (sword in hand, as one of two formidable 18th century female pirates). Before that, the Toronto native who’d moved West to go to theatre school at the U of A, was in Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig (as confrontational as you’d imagine) and Gary Henderson’s downright shocking Mo and Jess Kill Susie.
Now, a play about a famous misfit, recipient of a barrage of public loathing, including the charge she was a witch. The historical research, Brovold she says, has been full of fascinating questions. “So much is conjecture…. Was she demonized for her looks? Or for her (marital) behaviour? Or both? Was morality the issue? Or her face?”
“At a certain point, I surrendered!,” Brovold laughs. She gave up the actor’s quest for historical certainties. “You know what? She was demonized, and that was the point!”
Visually re-creating the ugliest woman in history with a beautiful actor is a job would require contortionist ministrations from a make-up and prosthetic artist. “In the playing, Trevor chose not to go after visual replication,” says Brovold. What’s crucial to the story is that “people think of her this way, and she thinks of herself this way. She feels (the ugliness) herself, how she sees herself is based on how people see her.”
It’s “the psychology of being ostracized,” that drives the theatrical portraiture. “The slings and arrows that have become part of our psychology, and what we really believe about ourselves…. Hurt gives way to anger and anger gives way to rage. Does that make her a monster? Or does that make her human?”
The pandemic devastation has been a year to erode the resolve and confidence of any performing artist. As Brovold puts it, “when life throws you curveballs it upsets your centre of gravity. When I read the script I felt an affinity and compassion for the character…. Going through a period where your self-worth has taken a hit, how do you keep going? How do you push forward? I related to that!”
“There was something to this person that I wanted to understand; her strength really resonated with me,” says Brovold of Margaret, who survived broken marriages, betrayals public abuse, ugly intrigues in the gendered politics of the time, and finally exile from her homeland. “I was feeling a little bereft: personal things, then COVID…. You’re on the journey of life, but you feel like you’re ricocheting off events.” Then came Schmidt’s enthusiastic invitation to do The Ugly Duchess. “I thought ‘OK, I’m going to have a creative renaissance with myself, make something creative at a very creatively tamped-down time!”
“What makes human beings keep going? The questing spirit in me was intrigued by the question. What else can you do but keep trying? And that’s what this play is about!”
Thoughtful, funny and self-deprecating in conversation, Brovold says she was “coming from a place of ‘I don’t know if I know how to be an actor any more because it’s been so long’, living life in such an overwhelming time’.” And then came The Ugly Duchess.
COVID restrictions on theatre meant that filming happened at the photography studio of cinematographer Ian Jackson. And Margaret’s story arc — stylized since Schmidt’s production is a filmed play and not a movie — happens in front of (and through) a vanity table mirror, from a variety of angles. “Trevor is really good at taking risks, trying new things in very imaginative, specific ways.”
Brovold laughs. If she was looking for a sign that, hiatus notwithstanding, she was still heart and soul an actor, “here’s the age-old actor question, arghh, that never goes away: where do I put my hands?”
Making a solo play into “a filmic piece” had its own particular challenges, Brovold found. The segments might not be shot chronologically, but “you still have to learn the whole arc of the play in order to have emotion continuity,” she says. “You really have to know who you are, what the moments are about.” And since there’s no moving about a stage physically, or projecting to the back row of a theatre, that knowledge has to be very particular, revealed in close-ups. “It’s a more intimate relationship, in a way. A breath, a flicker of a thought, and the camera is with you.…”
“We can’t know what we’re making yet! We creatively make choices, individually and as a team. But only the audience knows what we’ve made,” says Brovold, who’s looking forward to seeing how the contributions of director Schmidt, cinematographer/editor Ian Jackson, lighting designer Roy Jackson, sound designer Darrin Hagen, fit together, when the production starts streaming Friday.
And there’s the story of a character who “goes out fighting.” Says Brovold, “it’s so great to work on a play that reminds us that we all suffer; the degree and the reasons are unique, but we all do. And we all deserve and need kindness. I’m so thankful to re-learn that.”
Stories, muses Brovold, are what the theatre is for. “I’m so hopeful that when we return to theatres (in person), communities will flood the halls, and give it a big welcome. People need stories to feel they’re not aliens! They need to sit together in the dark, and agree to hear a story together, witness something together, breathe together.”
The Ugly Duchess
Theatre: Northern Light Theatre
Written by: Janet Munsil
Directed by: Trevor Schmidt
Starring: Lora Brovold
Where: online, from northernlighttheatre.com
Running: Friday through Sunday, and May 27 to 30, various times.