Martha Fleming and Lyne Lapointe, La Donna Delinquenta

Corona Theatre

Lyne Lapointe and Martha Fleming have based their reputation on “excavating” derelict buildings and creating installations from and within them. Their sort of restoration does not aim at erasing the traces of time as much as displaying and exploring them. Each deserted building serves as a metaphor for the abandonment and ghettoization of the neighborhood in which it is located.

For their latest project they cleared away the accumulation of 20 years of filth and refuse from the interior of the Corona Theatre, revealing a post-Edwardian vaudeville house replete with elaborate moldings, trompe l’oeil decorations, and wreaths of painted flowers peeling from the ceiling. It is in this setting of obsolescence that Fleming and Lapointe created and presented their own theater piece on the discourse of representation, La Donna Delinquenta (The female offender, 1987). (The title is taken from a 19th-century criminology textbook.)

By dressing the walls of their set with figurative “frescoes” (actually large pencil drawings) that included images of women from classical mythology, Renaissance art, and the modern industrial era, they invoked a historical framework for their parable. The theatrical charge was carried not by a traditional narrative but by a discursive, multisensory presentation achieved with a series of scenographic drop curtains (a découpage forest, a fortress, and a drawing of a woman in a prison uniform under the words "I have been abandoned by the world; the title of one of Gustav Mahler’s Rückert Lieder); sound and light effects (rain, thunder, and lightning; Chinese shadows gliding on the stage); and a selection of vocal music (by Offenbach, Verdi, Mahler, and various Depression-era singers such as La Poune and Lydia Mendoza). But the abandoned theater itself remained constantly in the foreground, providing an undercurrent of irony throughout the production.

The dramatization was fragmented, split between silent performers and various “texts” conveyed over loudspeakers by intermediaries (the recorded vocal music, a recited poem). The sung or spoken words were accompanied by (and sometimes contradicted by) the gestures of the performers. Fleming played a traditional outcast figure, dressed in the same prisoner’s costume pictured in the drop curtain. She crisscrossed the stage while the despairing words and music of Mahler’s song (in the original German) echoed throughout the theater, and at the end of the scene climbed willingly into her coffin. This antiheroine personifies the criminal as a manifestation of social strife, which she can only escape through death. Lapointe acted out another recorded lament (a composite of Verdi, Offenbach, etc.), but the action took place in the orchestra pit rather than on the stage, thwarting the audience’s identification with the protagonist. The invisible actress, the exaggerated theatrical effects, the gothic iconography of decay and dissolution—all of these contributed to a Brechtian distancing, a suspension of seduction rather than of disbelief.

Like Brecht, Fleming and Lapointe choose oppression as the privileged position from which to view a reality shaped by our dominant ideology. A negative image of our society, seen from the fringe, La Donna Delinquenta questioned our habits of perception, our acceptance of history, and our avid dehumanizing appetite for the new.

Francine Dagenais