By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
At the start of The Ugly Duchess, a woman seen from the back walks away from us to approach an elaborate golden altar constructed of mirrors. When you look in the mirror, who looks back?
Trevor Schmidt’s beautifully filmed Northern Light Theatre season-ender, starring Lora Brovold, has everything to do with the intricate questions of the mirror image: the self-portrait and the image created by the public gaze and in time, history. The production plays with the multi-angles at which a story emerges, from the ways images resist each other, intersect, merge, diverge.
The 1993 hit solo play by Vancouver playwright Janet Munsil, finally getting its professional premiere in Schmidt’s production, re-imagines from the inside out the strange story of 14th century Margaret, the last countess of the strategically located Tyrol, a rich and desirable catch as a bride, and by reputation the ugliest woman in history.
Her cruel nickname Maultasch, “bag-mouth” or “pocket-mouth,” has stuck (witness a startlingly grotesque Flemish portrait c. 1513 hanging in the National Gallery in London thought to be her likeness). And the historical libel trails political and moral ambiguities about ugliness, medieval gender politics, and the precarious place of a clever wealthy woman in authority playing in the world of men. Ring a bell perhaps?
In Brovold’s captivating performance, fierce and moving, the duchess sits at a vanity table loaded with make-up pots, powders, paints, perfumes. Like Alice, the quester in Wonderland, she has gone through the looking glass. And she speaks to us, conversationally, musingly, eye to eye, from the other side of time: the mirror as window.
Close-ups transform the world, as Schmidt’s direction, Ian Jackson’s inventive cinematography, and Roy Jackson’s lighting propose. Suddenly you realize that the decor of the vanity table, up close, is skulls, gruesomely masked in gold, their cavities threaded with golden chains. The duchess is transformed from a warm golden light of a hopeful younger, more naturally beautiful self, who can say “I know they don’t mean to be cruel; they need time to get to know me,” and decide to run with that thought. In the continuous weave of scenes, she becomes a more sardonic, wry, knowing commentator, seen at oblique angles, given to casual witty asides and narrative updates about her relatives, and bathed in greenish light. Or a pale-lipped white-faced fury, an assessor in lurid red lighting.
Is she talking to us? To herself? To history? In extreme close-ups, Brovold negotiates the multiple possibilities of the narrative with virtuoso precision, in adjustments of voice and eye contact.
The performance has a kind of confidential, in-your-ear quality. And it engages smartly with one of the tricky challenges of Munsil’s play — writing a historical figure with contemporary resonance. Without anachronisms per se, the language is mostly successful at being both of its time, and of now. “No one is ever loved by everyone,” says the duchess, who has an uncanny ability to shore up her own resolve with a plucky shrug. “Life is too short to spend much of it in childhood.”
What will touch your heart about the character, in Brovold’s performance, is the fortitude with which Margaret faces up to the horrifying cruelties of her life — the skin-flaying insults, the public burning of effigies, the scapegoating for fire, flood, locusts and the plague, the marital abuse and humiliations. “I am the goddess of ugliness…. The ugliest living thing is not as ugly as the dead,” is a thought from a medieval existentialist of sorts.
Schmidt’s artful production is bookended by the duchess’s exit from the swirling mists of the vanity table she’d approached at the beginning. Darrin Hagen’s score, with its vaporous hints of the medieval, is particularly evocative; voices nearly emerge from the air, like a wisp of smoke. It’s a metaphor of sorts for whole production.
And the duchess leaves us, and her rightful homeland, with a resolve that will warm you: “I long to surround myself with art, with beauty, with new ideas.” Can there be a better way to leave a familiar world for a new one? To be discussed.
The Ugly Duchess
Theatre: Northern Light Theatre
Written by: Janet Munsil
Directed by: Trevor Schmidt
Starring: Lora Brovold
Where: online, from northernlighttheatre.com
Running: through Sunday, and May 27 to 30, various times