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Julia Course as Emily with Yanna McIntosh as the baroness in The Baroness and the Pig.

Emily Cooper/Shaw Festival

  • Title: The Baroness and the Pig
  • Written by: Michael Mackenzie
  • Director: Selma Dimitrijevic
  • Actors: Yanna McIntosh and Julia Course
  • Company: The Shaw Festival
  • Venue: The Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre
  • City: Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to Oct. 6

rating

You’re probably going to hate The Baroness and the Pig.

Part of the audience disappeared during intermission at the matinee performance I saw at the Shaw Festival last week.

I myself might have headed for the nearby wineries if I were a paying customer.

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If I had written my review immediately, it would have reflected that feeling.

Luckily, the Shaw Festival opened three shows in one day and I had a backlog of reviews to get through. And, every day since I saw it, playwright Michael Mackenzie’s strange, fitful two-hander has grown on me – or director Selma Dimitrijevic’s deceptively simple production of it has, anyway.

The Baroness and the Pig is a fantasy set in Paris in the late 19th century.

Inspired by her reading of Rousseau and looking for praise from her peers, a baroness (Yanna McIntosh) decides to find a feral child to bring into her home and take on as a maid.

The baroness’s staff finds just such an enfant sauvage (Julia Course), a girl raised by pigs on a farm. The baroness gives her the name Emily – and sets about teaching her language, manners and how to properly set a table.

Playing Emily, Course – a Shaw company member now in her ninth season who’s a go-to ingenue – seems to revel in playing an uncorseted part.

David Cooper/Shaw Festival

Given that we’re at the Shaw Festival, you might see this as an all-female riff on Pygmalion. But the play’s not really about class at all. There’s misdirection at work.

Shaw artistic director Tim Carroll first stumbled upon the play in Budapest. Mackenzie is a Montreal-based, English-language playwright, but an artist whose work, unusually, is better known in other languages than his own. Watching previous productions of his work, I had formed the opinion that this was because, while the structure of his plays is always intriguing, his dialogue can be quite didactic and dry.

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This initially seems the case with The Baroness and the Pig – which begins with a number of highly artificial, clunky speeches by the baroness that reek of research. It’s the grunting Emily who seems to be communicating more clearly.

Instead of trying to cure the dialogue, however, Dimitrijevic and her cast highlight its awkwardness and aloofness. Swaddled in a giant white gown and wearing a comical white wig, McIntosh speaks as if she is in her own world, disconnected from reality. The pacing is ponderous.

Only the baroness’s anger at Emily’s errors brings her down to earth. And, gradually, it becomes apparent that the baroness may be less angry at Emily’s mistakes than at being brought down to earth. Because once she’s there, she has to grapple with the truth about the seemingly privileged world in which she lives.

There’s something unspoken at the centre of The Baroness and the Pig. An open secret. “Pretty can be a disadvantage,” the baroness tells Emily early on. “All of our previous maids were pretty.”

In a program note, Dimitrijevic, a Croatian-born, Scottish-based director, quotes the philosopher Slavoj Zizek: “The only surprising thing about the WikiLeaks revelations is that they contain no surprises.” She describes Mackenzie’s play as exploring “the moment of the collapse of faux ignorance.”

Dimitrijevic doesn’t write anything about #MeToo in her note, but that only makes it seem even more like she’s writing about #MeToo.

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Camellia Koo’s design echoes the themes of knowing/not knowing. It’s bright and white and everything seems to be out in the open – but it, too, contains secrets.

David Cooper/Shaw Festival

Before intermission, there’s a scene where the baroness discovers Emily whimpering under a sheet. It was staged in a corner, under a bench, and I could barely see it. Is that blood, I thought? Did she harm herself? Was she sexually assaulted?

It was unclear and, afterwards, I thought: How could a director stage a crucial scene like that so carelessly, in-the-round, with no thoughts to sightlines?

It took me days to consider the possibility this might be designed specifically to put the audience in the state of knowing/not knowing described in the program. To demonstrate to the audience how quick we can be to deny the obvious – or, perhaps, to embrace plausible deniability.

Playing Emily, Course – a Shaw company member now in her ninth season who’s a go-to ingenue – seems to revel in playing an uncorseted part. She gets to lick fancy silverware. She gets to roll around on the floor. At one point, she burrows through the audience’s feet, smelling our shoes.

There’s nothing “realistic” about her portrayal; it’s playful and fun and winking.

At the beginning of the production, we may both watch the baroness and the “pig” from a distance – pretending they are behind a fourth wall, like Pygmalion. But slowly, the actors make clear that they’re watching us as well, make us confront the fact we’re in a theatre.

In this, Dimitrijevic’s production also leads the audience toward a “moment of the collapse of faux ignorance.”

Can stereotypical theatrical spectatorship – the idea that we should “suspend our disbelief” – actually train us to ignore the obvious in our own world?

Even Camellia Koo’s design echoes the themes of knowing/not knowing. It’s bright and white and everything seems to be out in the open – but it, too, contains secrets. (The final image is a stunner.)

After digesting this production for a few days, I found myself thinking: Hold on, that was absolutely brilliant. A purse, not a sow’s ear.

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