Review: ribcage: this wide passage, at Firehall Arts Centre


The most powerful image of this multimedia work, combining theatre, live viola, dance, and video, is when Heather Hermant, playing Esther Brandeau, sits down to bind her breasts so she can dress and live as a young man, Jacques, in 18th-century Quebec. With this severe constriction comes the freedom of being able to live and work and support herself and travel freely. Hermant is a spoken-word artist, so often this work does seem more like a recitation than traditional theatre.

I have participated only lightly in researching family history, but it is indeed thrilling to find an undiscovered connection (and I have the privilege of having relatives who have done a lot of work on this subject). Hermant started researching her own family line, and found that Esther was a collateral ancestor, a young woman who disguised herself as a young man and got work on a ship to New France (Quebec). On a historical note, in pre-Revolution France, Jews were banned from immigrating to French North America (some got around this, particularly in New Orleans, but Esther is thought to be the first Jew in Canadian New France). Thus, Esther faced two significant hurdles in getting to North America: religion and gender. Esther found a way to explore and escape her life, for whatever reasons she had for doing this. Hermant also touches on the dispersion of Portuguese Jews in Europe (who were also subject to the Inquisition and deported from their homeland).

It’s tempting to put modern constructions on centuries-old behavior. Was Esther transgender? Was she just taking the only means she could figure out to escape the life she had (for whatever reasons she wanted to escape it)? Hermant sees her work as a “queer story about displacement and identity”, although we know nothing about Esther’s self-construction and self-identity other than what we can guess from the scant historical records. The work belongs to the artist, and it becomes about more than Esther, so I understand Hermant’s casting of this work as “queer”.

When Esther is deported back to France, after being discovered for her religion and gender, nothing more is ever heard of her. What might have happened? I tend towards pessimism, but perhaps Esther lived a full and interesting life, maybe even crossing the boundary again to live as a man.

The music and video enhanced the often spooky, mysterious feeling I felt as I watched and listened to this work. On a technical note, the Hermant’s words were often difficult to hear above the music. For me, this was particularly noticeable with the French passages, as my lack of fluency makes me desperate to hear everything very clearly. However, I was thrilled to see another example of multilingual theatre–which I can’t help but feel is the future of theatre as we manage multiple hybrid identities in a multilingual world as part of everyday experience.

The constricted ribcage, the wideness of the open ocean. This work is full of imagery and I enjoyed seeing its debut.

The Firehall has brought two premieres of one-woman shows to the stage in the past month: The Village and ribcage: this wide passage. Both have fascinating themes and innovative use of music and film.

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