Foote in the Door Productions has taken another big step with their latest production, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1945 classic Carousel. Their first mainstage show was She Loves Me, a light workplace romance with a spunky determined shopgirl heroine. Their second mainstage show was How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying last fall, a lighthearted 1960s look at corporate-workplace problems such as sexual harassment, nepotism, and the Peter principle, with the spunky determined officegirl’s happy ending being the suburban-homemaking wife to her upwardly-mobile sweetheart Ponty.
But Carousel covers tougher material, and includes some bits that are harder for modern audiences to deal with. This post contains spoilers. It’s mostly set in 1917, in a small town in Maine where the men mostly fish for a living and the women have jobs too, like working in a textile mill, or working at the inn owned by Nettie (Carolyn Ware). Protagonist Julie Jordan (Ruth Wong-Miller) and her friend Carrie Pipperidge (Natasha Mason) are millworkers, constrained to live in the millgirls’ dorm and follow chaperonage and curfew rules to keep their jobs.
Contrasting with this orderly and rigid culture is the carnival life, with manager Mrs Mullin (Rebecca Bissonette), carousel barker Billy Bigelow (Russ Farmer) and assorted non-speaking midway performers. Billy and Julie meet each other, and then linger chatting on a bench despite both of them losing their jobs for the dalliance. The speed and inevitability of these consequences seemed unconvincing to me as a modern audience member accustomed to more workplace rights. Julie is fired because she defies the mill owner’s offer to drive her back to the dorm before curfew and Billy is fired by the carnival manager who is jealous of whatever unspecified relationship she has with him. Both of these firings seemed to happen before either character knew the other one well enough to judge beyond some degree of attraction – and both of them have attitudes of “nobody tells me what to do!” that cause them trouble. And that sets in motion one of those tragic unstoppable trajectories – they’re stuck together because of losing their livelihoods and accommodations, he is unsuccessful getting work, she gets pregnant, he gets drawn into a criminal plan in order to provide for his family, etc. Farmer’s Billy is not a classic hero at all – he’s shortsighted (gambling away the criminal takings before they even do the crime), cocky with women, and stubborn (unwilling to take work on a fishing boat), still defiant after death as a soul in the afterlife. He’s ill-equipped for adult life, his schemes don’t work, and he kills himself rather than go to jail. His own outcome follows directly from his bad qualities and the culture he’s in, and his afterlife redemption only comes after his second attempt to give his daughter Louise (Megan Beaupre) a better chance than he had.
The part that was most uncomfortable for me was that Billy hits Julie, and she excuses or accepts it. The hitting took place off stage. We learn when Julie confides in her friend, and then the other women overhear and make sure everyone knows. Everyone who responds to Julie lets her know it’s not appropriate and she didn’t deserve it, and Carrie challenges her when she makes excuses for Billy. So after Billy dies and we see Julie carrying on, working with her cousin Nettie to run the former inn as a boarding house and raising her daughter, I’m thinking this is the best possible solution in fiction, anyway, because I don’t want to see her getting abused on an ongoing basis and I don’t believe he could reform. But then when the heavenly powers (Pauline Farmer and Shauna Rebus) give Billy a day on earth to take care of “unfinished business” his first attempt to reach his daughter and inspire her ends in him losing his temper and slapping her hand. The audience, like Louise, is horrified. Perhaps she has not been raised with violence and the cycle has been broken. However, when Louise tells her mother about the slap that “felt like a kiss”, Julie, reminiscing, says “It is possible, dear, for someone to hit you, hit you hard and have it not hurt at all.” Does Louise take this as her mother’s encouragement to accept relationship violence? Is Julie at risk of accepting abuse in a future relationship? Is the pattern doomed to continue? I desperately want to believe all the answers are no. but after the performance ended I had to go walking in the rain by myself instead of standing around in opening-night crowds in the lobby, so I could think. I thought about how hard it is to change abusive patterns of behaviour, and I thought about what a good job director Mary-Ellen Perley and her cast and team had done, to make me that disturbed.
More subtle commentaries on the prevailing attitudes and the patriarchal culture come from Julie’s friend Carrie. It’s clear that she’s marrying for love as well as marrying up, when she introduces her fiance Mr. Enoch Snow (Rory Turner). He’s full of plans for expanding his fleet of fishing boats and expanding his household to include a wife and many children. She’s thrilled with her handsome beau, but he’s quick to judge her as unvirtuous when he surprises her with scoundrel Jigger Craigin (Morgan Smith), without hearing her side or considering her character of naive kind enthusiasm. And in the 1945 scenes at the end, she tells Julie “If I had more sense I wouldn’t have had nine children.” Natasha Mason’s Carrie is a gentle reminder that the “proper” path for women in that town was also lacking in autonomy and flawed by modern ideals.
Foote in the Door is partnering with WIN House, the local domestic abuse shelter. Brochures with information on the issue and the organization are available at the show, and donations are solicited from the audience afterwards.
My favourite songs in this production were Nettie singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, and Billy’s “The Highest Judge of All” which had a particularly interesting orchestral accompaniment.
Foote in the Door has also taken a practical step with this production, across the street from the auditorium of Faculté St-Jean to the bigger stage of L’UniThéâtre at La Cité. This facility gives them better lighting options, and the space for a fifteen piece orchestra as well as a large active ensemble. Carousel runs this weekend and next week, closing Saturday June 24th. Advance tickets are available through Tix on the Square, same-day and weekend tickets at the door until they sell out.